Album Review: Hamilton Leithauser – The Loves of Your Life

[Glassnote Recordings; 2020]

There is something about Hamilton Leithauser that is difficult to truly grasp. Eternally a nearly man, history will look back on him much more kindly than the present does. Nobody can deny that “The Rat” is by far and away the biggest indie banger ever, and that song alone pretty much put paid to the career of Leithauser’s band The Walkmen simply by virtue of them not being able to write another song anywhere near as good, despite their output being rammed with total earworms such as “Angela Surf City” and “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone”.

However, beneath the brash adrenaline rush of dancefloor stompers that The Walkmen churned out lay the bare bones of the types of songs that Leithauser now delivers to grateful ears in his solo work. Plaintive, often melancholic, introspective beauties that live in the netherworld outside of the glare of attention. His songs evoke images of rainy evenings, people scurrying this way and that without looking up, of regret in the early hours and of strangers being overly significant for the briefest of moments. It is in this last category that birthed the creative drive behind the lyrics on The Loves of Your Life.

“The Garbage Men” opens proceedings and allows Leithauser to do that extended vocal note hold thing that is very much a key element of his singing style. He switches between a late-60s Scott Walker smooth vibrato and an angsty, drained hoarseness with ease, and it’s in these vocal traits that his warm-yet-tense personality is allowed to exude. The track begins with soporific orchestration that sounds like a whole city weeping itself to sleep. It’s a song of faded hopes and dreams, of apathy and the rude awakenings of reality in a seeming world of crushed aspiration. It is, quite simply, ace.

There is a range of musical styles on The Loves Of Your Life, including country on the plaintive “Isabella” to folk on “Here They Come”. The first of these is a portrait of a woman who has never really grown up, dependent on her family’s relative wealth to forego any degree of responsibility. It has all of the wide-eyed naivety of Harry Nilsson at his best, with a downbeat musical arrangement that encapsulates a sense of warmth for the song’s protagonist, but also a sense of futility at her lack of maturity – “She did a year in a college around here / But she never left and she never will,” opines Leithauser before the track sheds its humble skin by embellishing itself with an array of vocal harmonies that lifts the song to a more optimistic but bittersweet slope. “Here They Come” begins with a Nick Drake-style acoustic guitar before Leithauser’s half-whispered vocals appear. This opening salvo of songs mirror the same weary loss of hope and the spark of life that their characters yearn for. It is with this sense of missed opportunity, through apathy or misfortune, that Leithauser paints his portraits.

The Loves of Your Life suffers from a fairly static narrative. The sketches of the people that we meet along the way all shade them as ones that we should feel a degree of empathy but also pity for. They cannot see their setbacks as clearly as we can, which adds a certain degree of discomfort in the voyeurism that we are asked to engage in. These themes already seem well worn by the time we get to tracks such as “Cross-Sound Ferry” and “Til Your Ship Comes In”, which seem flat as a result.

The final third of the album lifts itself out of this quagmire as the songs have a heightened sense of romance to them, albeit a doomed sense of love and longing. “The Stars of Tomorrow” is a 1960s torch song with an arrangement straight out of the Angela Morley book of production work, while “The Other Half” is a Motown influenced croon-fest that once again allows Leithauser the opportunity to let his vocals soar.

The Loves of Your Life is an interesting entry in the career of Hamilton Leithauser, and one that rewards repeat listens on the majority of tracks even if some don’t quite click. Despite an array of musical styles, the songs all tend to plod along at the same tempo, which becomes a little frustrating in places. The portraits of sombre and solemn humanity painted on the best songs here are rich, whereas they fall into caricatures on the weaker tracks – although these are in the minority, to be fair. Even when the material is less than hoped for, his voice can still manage to grab you square in the heart.