Seven albums into a nearly 12-year career, the Walkmen have maintained a devoted cult following while releasing consistently excellent full-length records. In many respects the group has done things the old fashioned way — consistently touring and recording new material — each time out, sharpening its idiosyncratic vision of what traditional, guitar-based rock music should sound like. As a result, the band has influenced many of the commercially viable indie upstarts of the past few years (Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes), while simmering on the precipice of its own major commercial breakthrough.
At this point, that breakthrough moment seems less and less likely, but the Walkmen seem absolutely comfortable with their position as cultish elder statesmen of indie rock. With new album “Heaven,” the band lays back even further into a nostalgic exploration of melodic, folk-filtered pop music. It is the band’s least rhythmically-charged and most straightforward release to date. It is also their most mature and emotionally evocative album — revealing a sturdiness and quiet self-confidence that departs greatly from the manic bombast of the band’s earliest releases.
A warm Wednesday evening at the open-air Ford Amphitheatre allowed for an ideal pairing of landscape and sound — with the Walkmen emphasizing clarity and mood over sonic force. Guitarist Paul Maroon opened the show with an elegant, unaccompanied introduction to “Line By Line,” with the rest of the band filtering in as he picked through a resonant set of undulating guitar patterns.
Frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s stage presence has always been simultaneously forceful and vulnerable — capable of producing tender moments of reflection and vocal chord-shredding howls. But early in the set he sang mostly with great restraint — emphasizing many of the clearly personal lyrical couplets.
The sound was crystal clear and the reverb that traditionally consumes a Walkmen recording just hovered lightly in the mix — never obscuring, but adding resonance and texture to the songs. The set list leaned heavily on the three most recent albums with a few surprising odds and ends from throughout the band’s discography.
The acoustic-lead “We Can’t Be Beat” and “I Lost You” were performed starkly with Leithauser crooning the verses and then dive-bombing into the emotive bridges. The clarity of the performance allowed Leithauser the freedom to truly deliver his lyrics in a direct way that showcased the significant artistic growth he has experienced as a writer.
A four-piece horn section joined the group at different points throughout the set, most stunningly on “Stranded,” where the lightly droning brass melted perfectly behind Leithauser’s searching lament: “What’s the story with my old friends?/Drunk and lonely/To the end.”
The main portion of the set closed with a rapturous reading of “In The New Year,” one of the band’s finest achievements, with its chorus sections pushing the band to the highest emotional peak of the evening. A five-song encore followed with a surprise rendition of the beloved breakthrough song “We’ve Been Had.”