For this edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, senior staff writers Zach Schonfeld and Paula Mejia revisit Bows + Arrows, The Walkmen’s sophomore album, which turns 10 years old this week. To celebrate, the two return to a time when anything both NYC and rock ‘n’ roll could have been written out as a Strokes-knock off, discuss the musical impact of FOX’s underrated program The O.C., and ruminate on what the album means today in a discography chock full of critical darlings.
Zach Schonfeld (ZS): So, now that the dust has settled a bit and The Walkmen are on break for a while (we think?), how will they be remembered?
Much as I’ve (slowly enough) come around to the jangly, settled pop of Heaven, I hope it’s not for that. I hope — not that I don’t understand that people grow older and happier and healthier, these things happen, parenthood seems nice! — but I hope we don’t soon forget all the bitterness and booziness and caked bile this band summoned on Bows + Arrows. Between Hamilton Leithauser’s betrayed howls on “No Christmas While I’m Talking” and his tight-chested pleas on “Thinking of a Dream I Had” (“Doon’t lead me on!”), it’s a brash, brilliant chronicle of broken relationships and crashing drums and stinging guitars.
I first heard The Walkmen in 2004, around the time Bows + Arrows landed on dozens of year-end lists and the “The Rat” video gained some traction of its own, but I didn’t take much notice. I liked that track enough but maybe felt like I didn’t have enough evidence these guys weren’t another Strokes knock-off. Who knows.
So I didn’t become much of a fan until early 2011, when I saw them live for the first time. That was the long, strange summer I spent driving around the country, from Massachusetts to Iowa to Georgia, for a college-funded research project. Along with my worn American Map road atlas and box of Quaker Oats, Bows + Arrows never left my car. I was obsessed — with the yowling vocals, the vintage instrumental timbres, the general angst of it. I screamed along with “The North Pole” on a tiny state highway in Virginia. I picked up Lisbon at a record store in Burlington, VT. It didn’t steal my attention from Bows + Arrows.
It all felt a little perverse. Here’s this vicious, bitter record about quarter-life crises and being cheated on, and I wasn’t going through a breakup or anything of the sort — I was just a few months into a new relationship. So listening to Bows + Arrows felt like some sort of stinging shot of reality — a reminder that everything falls apart eventually, that someone will hurt you bad soon enough and you’ll end up slumped over a whiskey mouthing along with that “When I used to go out, I’d know everyone I saw / Now I go out alone if I go out at all” refrain on “The Rat”. Don’t get comfortable, the CD taunted me from the five-disc changer. Adulthood’s a mess.
Anyway, two and a half years later we’re still together and The Walkmen aren’t and I still adore this fucking record. What say you?
Paula Mejia (PM): Years later I still adore this record, too. My first introduction to The Walkmen was a bit embarrassing, but we’ll run with it. Sophomore year of high school, this really rad guy I was friends with (but had a huge crush on) would play “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages” all the time. Crush aside, these songs immediately caught my attention — huge choruses, yearning vocals, chugging guitar lines. I’d never heard anything communicate tension, loneliness and lovesickness so earnestly and so well, too. I honestly can’t even pick a favorite from this record. Although, The Walkmen have a very prolific and solid body of work, nothing before or after this record could ever compare to Bows + Arrows, in my mind.
Also — The Walkmen made their debut on The O.C.‘s first season with “The Rat”. At the time, the show played such solid music, especially for those formative high school years. I remember that vividly.
ZS: Ah yeah, the O.C. episode. Publicity boost notwithstanding, I almost wonder if that, combined with “The Rat”, gave some people the wrong idea about The Walkmen — like, making them out to be some sort of singles act. Which, as great as “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages” were on their own, they never really were. Even on Bows + Arrows, the whole thing seems of a piece thematically, stitched together between the snotty disillusionment of “What’s In It For Me”, the flailing tantrum of “The Rat”, and the tenuous peace-keeping of the title track (“There comes a time/ To make it right when I was wrong/ And someday, girl, we’ll get along” — what a way to make amends with someone). Of course, then A Hundred Miles Off and You & Me landed, neither boasting any sort of recognizable or iconic single or TV-ready jam, and seemed to pass a lot of those one-time fans/O.C. viewers by. I’d argue that the best material on You & Me matches The Walkmen’s best, but then that’s a conversation for another feature…
We’ve chatted about the lyrics already, but musically I’ve always thought of Bows + Arrows as a sort of love letter to Marcata Studios, the Harlem studio that the band built and used from 1999 until 2006, when Columbia nabbed the real estate. (I assume that’s where they’re chilling on the album cover.) They’ve always exercised such tight control over their recording process, between the studio and the vintage instrumentation that they use, and I think it pays off tremendously here — I’m hard-pressed to think of an indie-rock album from the early 2000s that simply sounds as good as this one, in terms of rawness and instrumental attack. (Maybe John Vanderslice’s Cellar Door, from the same year, comes close.) That upright piano on “Hang On, Siobhan” and the way you can hear the drums snares shake? That layered, ringing guitar racket on “My Old Man”? Such good stuff.
Skimming the reviews from back in the day, I see some comparisons to Joshua Tree-era U2, what with the anthemic spirit of it all. But U2 never managed to rock this hard, did they?
PM: Not the way The Walkmen did, Zach!
I’m not sure The O.C. did that with them, or The Killers, or Super Furry Animals, or any other group whose songs were paired with pivotal scenes on that show. I always thought of the live performances and utilization of music as more of a “sampler,” at least for me. But when I saw The Walkmen on The O.C., I was definitely surprised to see them reaching the echelons of a major, super-hyped network TV show. I mean, Leithauser’s (admittedly impressive) range of hitting those falsetto yowls and desperate growls on the very next line — I can definitely see that being abrasive to the unsuspecting listener. But you know, it works.
Sure, you could say “Little House of Savages” and “The Rat” sound a bit snotty now — but who wasn’t unsure and disillusioned as a teenager? “Can’t you hear me?/ I’m calling out your name?” from “The Rat” was one couplet I remember specifically speaking directly to that exact feeling of invisibility that can be so entwined with adolescence and insecurity. Even today “The Rat” is one of those quintessential songs that yearns — not for someone to just notice you but just for a connection, period.
That’s interesting about the record potentially being a love letter to Marcata Studios, I hadn’t thought of that before besides “138th Street”. That’s the pained kind of love letter to write though, as it’s rife with confusion, frustration, and just pain at the core. Then again, I have trouble disentangling this album (or You & Me) from a certain romance, real or imagined, at different points in my adolescence and early twenty-something years. A sidenote: You & Me is a devastating record and you can definitely make a case for them mastering their sound on it. But this is a conversation for another feature indeed!
I’ve always been impressed with their meticulous approach to vintage instrumentation as well — especially elements like the tinny-sounding pianos in “New Year’s Eve” just make these songs shimmer. In terms of other mid-2000s indie rock albums that resound as sharp instrumentally…Interpol’s Turn On the Bright Lights from 2002 is really the only record that jumps out immediately in my mind, albeit that’s far more directly post-punk leaning than Bows + Arrows, and stylized too. This record is jagged and jangly in a way that’s not contrived, and I love that.
ZS: Confusion, frustration, and pain for sure. I don’t know to what extent Leithauser lived these songs and how much of it is creative license, but his songs manage that strange, uncanny songwriting trick: of being full of detail and full of character, while still summoning emotions that are remarkably universal to anyone and everyone. There’s a line I remember reading in a review of a Disintegration reissue, and it’s this: “The trick, I think, is how well it serves as a soundtrack to that feeling that everything around you is meaningful, whether it’s beautiful or horrible or sublime.”
Bows + Arrows is a lot like that. Whatever it is you’re feeling, this album will amplify the hell out of it, and it will understand you and it will take you in. RIP, The Walkmen, and long live The Walkmen.