Friday, 5 November 2010

The Walkmen - Lisbon

There's a question that is constantly floating about the worlds of computer games that goes something along the lines of this: "Are computer games art?". The answer, of course, is impossible to even consider because Art itself is subjective, and the broad brush strokes given to anything that is suddenly proclaimed to be artful is nothing short of redundant these days. If suddenly, someone, somewhere was to figure it out and understand if or if not the latest Gears of War title was Art then would anything change? Would it be a validation of the medium? Would it change people’s opinions of gamers and games to any degree? My sceptical mind says no, but that day will come. To some, it already has - I would say it has came close; in certain games, such as Okami and Mass Effect, where the uniqueness of the medium is shown unabashedly, with artistic merit, to say that the work and sales of all these people who work on these massive projects needs recognition from people outside the medium is not required.

I say this because it is related to the music industry as a whole, in a way. You see, bands recently have became almost corporate entities - the actual market forecasts of massive multinational companies are dictated by the performance of the albums that they have invested in. Does the recent album by Coldplay feel artful because it is music, or is it less artful due to gestation period upon which millions of pounds were spent on production? Are Hollywood films still artful when they are staunchly formulaic to make money? As I stated at the start, it is neither here nor there for me to say, nor is it for anyone else to define. Art is just something that is and in this 21st century world we live within, like it or not, we need to have a definition of something we cannot define. I like to think of it as Quantum Criticism.

This relates to the Walkmen ever so slightly, so I'll admit that we have gone off topic even before I have started to discuss the band, and the album, so we should probably start I think. Firstly, let me explain the Walkmen as they are to me. I saw them away back in the hazy days of 2002. I guess it was by accident rather than by design, but I had been exposed to them via the way of The Rat which, I guess, is how most people back in those times would have as MTV 2 was playing the hell out of the video. The song was all I knew. That cold night in Edinburgh where, after a few illicit beers, we missed our last train back to Glasgow and my friends and I waited for a father to pick us up and take us back home. I didn’t persue the Walkmen after that gig.

In full circle I rediscovered them again in my adulthood just before the release of You & Me was announced. I picked up the three albums prior to You & Me and started to pick their subtleties apart. Then, with one swoop, You & Me came along and gave me one of my all time favourite albums. The slow, measured, slick build up from all the songs actually gave me one of my first ever amateur reviews. In this short, badly written, and well misspelled review (I gave it 8/9, an arbitrary scale not needed anymore) I quite surprisingly made a valid point that “I feel that if I had been involved with them any early [sic] ...I wouldn’t have understood the point of The Walkmen”.

With this, their sixth studio album, Lisbon, the band has the problem of having to follow up their masterpiece. There is no doubt that You & Me is their most impressive body of work to date and it feels like the album the rest were written to allow for, Lisbon is the sound of a band realising that they have managed it, and they can relax and spread out in their new found peace. However, don’t mistake that observation for it being complacent – straight away on Lisbon there is an immediacy of difference. More brass horns and less dark piano crawl over this record, and the vocals are sounding warmer with every track. If this album was to be described as a season it would be spring, but a dark, twisted, malevolent spring in which the flowers are all blooming and the trees are back in colour... but the flowers are blues and blacks and the leaves have grown back in autumn colours.

Inside the album there is a feeling that the album is artful. This bring me back to my first point, in a round a bout way. There’s a sense that the band are working their way through a plan, an almost mapped out journey of destinations and like most journeys there are blips and bumps along the way. The scenery is beautiful and the album soars beyond it’s early forefathers in most, if not all, the tracks, but is solemnly covered by its direct predecessor. Imagine that the first albums where cityscapes; the tumbling suburbs and the hostile industrial landscapes, the last two albums are the wonderful countryside of calm. Whilst the band are making music that feels timeless, like an old band used to, the rest of the world is screaming ahead into Autotuned Soylent Green futures, and this timelessness is present in not only the instrumentation, or the vocals, but right in the Walkmen’s life blood. The album feels artful because it is not new, it’s old, and it feels like an album used to feel. Lisbon is as good as You & Me without being You & Me again, and that’s some of the highest praise the album can be given.

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