The Walkmen Were Supposed to be the Next Big Thing

What Happened?

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Photo Credit: RECORDCOLLECTION • 2004

Full disclosure, this article idea came to me in a dream, and I liked it, so I decided to write it. “I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray.” With that out of the way, let’s get this show on the road. Come with me or don’t; it’s up to you.

Music history, like anything else, has its shares of mysteries and surprises. The Walkmen’s career could be one of those mysteries. Not a lot of people talk about them these days, but that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when they were among the buzziest bands of the coolest music scene in the country. They won over critics and scored bona fide hits. Their rise to the top and place in rock history was all but assured. So, why didn’t they ever break through the way everyone was sure they would?

In the early 2000s, rock n’ roll was struggling to find its footing. For most of the 90s, Seattle had been the de facto capital of the genre. But after years of ruling the charts, grunge’s reign began to dissipate like clouds parting. The death of Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam’s growing disillusion with the music industry, and Soundgarden’s break up all played significant roles in bringing about the end of this era. But the fact was that pop music was changing. The gloomy, guitar-driven, Seattle sound gave way to bubble gum, sunny pop like Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and their ilk.

But the events of 9/11 had massive worldwide repercussions. Like for the rest of the world, New York City’s future seemed uncertain. But this cloud of uncertainty helped foster fertile grounds, perfect for the rebirth of rock music. NYC already had a vibrant music scene, even if it wasn’t huge. But after 9/11, everyone turned their attention to the big apple, rooting for the city during its time of need. For a while, it seemed like everyone was a New Yorker and wanted to hear what NYC had to say. And its music scene was brought into the spotlight, making the bands NYC’s ambassadors to the world.

The Strokes kickstarted an indie rock scene revival defined by a post-punk/new wave-inspired sound that included bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and many others. And for a few years at least, these bands and the sound took over the world. It seemed like NYC bands kept popping up, ready to take over the world. One of those bands was The Walkmen.

In 2000, the Walkmen rose out of the ashes of two fallen bands, the former next big thing, Jonathan Fire* Eater and The Recoys. Borrowing money from friends and family, the band constructed a rehearsal space in uptown, New York City. In 2001, the band released their self-titled EP. Hoping to distance themselves from their earlier bands’ garage rock leanings and the current scene, The Walkmen incorporated upright pianos and other vintage instruments, which became a defining trait of their sound. They made their official live debut at Joe’s Pub in the East Village.

It’s not a big mystery why The Walkmen caught on. They were a lively, messy young band who always swung for the fences, both on stage and in the studio. A cool factor has always been integral to Indie rock, and The Walkmen were one of the coolest. They were the kind of band that always seemed to have a spot reserved on any mixtape (or cd) worth listening to.

In 2002, The Walkmen released their debut album Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone. Although it wasn’t a huge hit, it was well-received by music critics who compared the album to U2 and The Cure. The album also earned them a large amount of buzz. Pitchfork ranked it the 27th best album of 2002. The song, “We’ve Been Had” was even featured in a Saturn Ion car commercial.

Two years later, the band returned with what many consider their career-defining album, Bows + Arrows. It was critically acclaimed, landing a spot on many “best of” lists that year and won over even more fans. The album includes their most iconic song, “The Rat,” a song that Rolling Stone called “one of the greatest songs of the century.” The band even went on to perform on the Fox hit series The OC and graced many music magazines’ covers. There was no denying it; The Walkmen were ready for the big leagues.

Their first two albums set them up, and their next album should have been the out of the park home run that made them superstars. However, with A Hundred Miles Off, released in 2006, the band showed more interest in following their instincts than scoring hits. The album swerved into folk music, leaving behind the indie rock sound that defined their career up to this point. Bob Dylan heavily influenced A Hundred Miles Off, and it surprised many fans. It also received mixed reviews and didn’t take their career to the next stage, as many had expected. A lot of bands might have walked things back and tried to recreate what worked in the past. But The Walkmen kept pushing forward, following their guts. They weren’t interested in chasing hits or repeating themselves.

Just five months later, they released a song-for-song cover of Pussy Cats, a Harry Nilsson album released in 1974. Although it originally began as a joke, the project eventually evolved into a full album. It’s hard to believe their fans or anyone was dying to hear a note for note recreation of the Harry Nilsson album, but The Walkmen delivered it anyway. It was a passion project through and through, but it received a lukewarm reception. The band recorded the album during the last days of their recording studio. Columbia University bought the building, forcing the band to shut it down.

In 2008, the band returned with the critically acclaimed You & Me. Pitchfork labeled the album a triumphant return to form, and The Guardian awarded it five out of five stars. The Walkmen may have returned to form, but that doesn’t mean they were repeating themselves. They built on the sound of their earlier work, evolving into a more subtle, mature band. And the songs were still as captivating and well-crafted as ever.

But the band was never one to rest on their laurels, and they kept experimenting and moving forward. In 2010, they released Lisbon, an album that utilized mariachi horns and 1950s production styles. The album was another critical hit and contained several fan-favorites like Woe is Me, Juveniles, and Angela Surf City. It also appeared on several “best of” lists that year.

And in 2012, they released the album what would become their last, the critically acclaimed Heaven. The album is a collection of undeniably catchy songs filled with infectious melodies. It felt and sounded like a band truly happy like they finally accomplished what they set out to do. And it seemed like they were inviting the listener to enjoy the moment with them. The album provided a genuinely satisfactory conclusion to the band’s journey, a culmination of their career. It felt like the band was saying “goodbye” to their fans and ending a chapter in their lives.

In the end, they never took over the world, like other bands in the scene did, but that’s because they never set out to. They were more interested in doing what they believed in and making the type of music they wanted to hear. Sometimes that earned them a lot of fans; other times, it didn’t. They did things on their own terms and created a sound that was all their own. And for a lot of people, their music meant a lot and continues to matter.

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