Hamilton Leithauser possesses one of the most recognizable and expressive voices in indie rock. When he sings, his temples bulge, his shoulders hunch inward, and he tightens his grip, as he channels every bit of emotional intensity he can muster into the microphone. Years ago, when I first heard him sing, the image that came to mind was of a guy walking home at night in a rumpled tuxedo in the pouring rain, dejected but defiant, down but not (completely) out. Leithauser’s knack for penning scathing kiss-offs that belie a deeper, more persistent tenderness only reinforces this image.
A couple of year ago, when Leithauser’s band, the celebrated New York quintet The Walkmen, went on “indefinite hiatus,” no fewer than three of its members promptly embarked on solo careers. Walter Martin made an album of childrens’ music. Peter Matthew Bauer put out a psychedelic folk record tinged with Eastern mysticism. But Leithauser released Black Hours: a deep dive into the past that successfully mined pre-rock traditions for inspiration, and found Leithauser adopting the persona of a lounge singer of yore.
While Leithauser covered ground on his solo debut that he’d never covered with The Walkmen, there was more than a thread of continuity with his old band (and that wasn’t a bad thing). After listening to his second solo LP, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, it’s clear that he’s still wearing that wrinkled tuxedo. He’s also still elegantly channeling heartbreak. But his expression is now defined by a cool, crestfallen demeanor, rather than by uninhibited relational frustration. What makes this transition so effective is that Leithauser manages to do it without ever sounding trite, or lapsing into shameless (or worse, tasteless) appropriation of the past.
Two of Black Hours‘ most hummable songs were co-written with Rostam Batmanglij, who was then part of Vampire Weekend (he has since departed to embark on a solo career). For I Had A Dream, the two decided to work on every song together: a true collaborative album. But while Black Hours dabbled in a dusty yet jaunty lounge aesthetic, I Had A Dream scans as a bolder, rougher, more stripped-down affair. It projects Leithauser’s trademark world-weariness, but also presents listeners with new sides of Leithauser, both musically and lyrically. It foregrounds Leithauser’s skill at inhabiting and updating older musical traditions, while also showcasing Rostam’s talents as a unique producer and a tasteful multi-instrumentalist.
This is, in part, due to the album’s distinctive production, which shouldn’t work, but somehow does. It sounds quite industrial, with some of the mids removed. Pummeled drums and commanding vocals stroll to the center of the soundstage, with a host of guitars and other instruments embroidering the edges. Twinkling pianos float high above a bold rhythm section, while delicately strummed nylon-stringed guitars pick out beautiful melodies.
“In A Black Out” was the song that struck me most upon my first listen of the album, and it remains the album’s standout track. It’s a masterclass in how to channel intensity without necessarily employing dynamics or loudness. In the lead up to the album’s release, Rostam said that he wanted to record Leithauser’s voice in a way it hadn’t been before, and I think this track reveals that he was able to do just that.
Lead single (and grammatically incorrect song title) “A 1000 Times” is also quite good, with a simple yet bold melody that opens up after the first minute. I sing it in the shower. The rest of the album lacks an obvious weak link.
I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is one of those albums that went a little under the radar this year, and deserves a wider audience. Its artistic success is a testament to the authors’ commitment to collaboration, as they both have achieved significant critical and commercial success on their own well before reaching age 40. This is a pairing of indie rock superpowers that works incredibly well, much in the same way that last year’s EL VY record exceeded expectations.