In a week filled with great new releases, it’s Hamilton Leithauser’s Black Hours that outshines them all. The debut album from the former frontman of The Walkmen masters the tricky conundrum that plagues every artist that goes solo: satisfying old fans while justifying the decision to go solo. Hamilton indulges enough touches and signifiers that recall the unique sound of The Walkmen, while experimenting with new ideas and leaving enough of his own personal imprint that makes Black Hours a work distinct enough from his previous output.
Hamilton’s voice is one of the most recognizable in indie rock, and the full range of his rough-around-the-edges style is showcased throughout Black Hours. He switches effortlessly between an exuberant bark (“Alexandra”), to a joyful serenade (“11 O’clock Friday Night”), to a delicate croon (“St. Mary’s County”), and that’s within the space of three songs. The performance on Black Hours is reminiscent of the more recent Walkmen albums, where Hamilton learned to use the right amount of restraint with his voice, and not let its power get out of control. That said, he can still let it out when he needs to, as he does on the exhilarating “Alexandra”.
Listeners should be able to pick out specific instrumental touches throughout Black Hours that evoke the trademark work of The Walkmen. Most notably, there is the clean, trebly guitar that appears in songs like “I Don’t Need Anyone” and “Bless Your Heart”, so it should be no surprise that it’s former bandmate Paul Maroon that helps out with guitar, strings, piano, and organ on eight of the ten tracks. There are other small callbacks that should grab the attention of Walkmen fans, most notably a chorus form “11 O’clock Friday Night” of “You and me and everybody else” that seems designed to specifically evoke one of their best-received albums.
Even with all these details that hearken back to his previous band, Hamilton does enough to separate Black Hours from his previous work. “5 Am” is a spare, haunting ballad that would fit nicely in Leonard Cohen’s back catalog, and “The Silent Orchestra” continues with that retro-ish feel with the use of a playful backing orchestra, a style befitting that of a classic Dean Martin or Sinatra record. There’s the goofy marimba from “11 O’Clock Friday Night”, which sets the tone with a melody that rips off the old “Updated Score” sound from ESPN’s BottomLine ticker, and is soon matched by a prominent bass and embellished by the guitar. The careful use of strings throughout the album add a new dimension to many of the songs, but most effectively on “Self-Pity”. In the end, Hamilton doesn’t fully escape the identity of his old band; album closer “The Smallest Splinter” would fit perfectly within the tracklist for Heaven, and the careful, midtempo ballad is one of the highlights of the album. But that’s okay–when you were a member of one of the best indie rock bands of the past decade, no one should complain that the new music sounds a little bit like the old stuff.