You would’ve thought New York in itself would be enough to provide you with all the stories you’d ever need, but there came a point during the three years in which Hamilton Leithauser was making The Loves Of Your Life that ghosts and monuments simply weren’t enough. Instead, he chose to write about people.
In a sense, that shouldn’t have been a radical departure for an artist whose last album – 2016’s collaboration with former Vampire Weekend guru Rostam, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine – dealt with such rich, ostentatious glances at its inhabitants. But this time, nestled in a cramped home studio dubbed The Struggle Hut, he wrote the music in conjunction with former Walkmen bandmate Paul Maroon, playing more or less all the instruments himself. However, the words simply wouldn’t come. All this changed though after a suitably weird epiphany on, of all things, a ferry.
The encounter took place whilst Leithuaser, travelling with his daughters, gave conversation with a stranger who was alone. Eventually, the realisation dawned that this man was riding the boat without a destination in mind, an act of eccentricity which would eventually lead to Cross-Sound Ferry (Walk-On Ticket) and almost a dozen other characters drawn from nearby memory.
Not everything has changed: Leithauser’s voice, which scales from twenty-a-day rasp to twinkling falsetto, is still a small wonder, but this is, without sounding too pretentious, a musician’s record, filled with amiable and discretely grand performances. Where there are guests, they mirror this purist approach, with a notable contribution from the near-legendary Jon Batiste, but also the Leithauser juniors play a part, along with their elementary school teacher on occasional backing vocals.
There’s rare skill needed to turn real folks into personalities to root for, but the gallery here is fascinating. Closer The Old King has a sobered rake grappling with the realisation that giving love is the key to being loved in return, its dusty bar-room piano solemn and forgiving. By contrast, devoting yourself to someone as an ideal, beyond their truth is at the core of Til Your Ship Comes In, and Here They Come paints the moment in which an escapist sees all their problems returning like cursed pigeons.
Resisting the pull of these souls is near impossible. The most exotic is named Isabella, the faded Manhattan debutante celebrated on the album’s countryfied peak, a trust funded little girl in a dream of imprisonment by her own gilded existence. Complete with the suburban kryptonite of a slide guitar, it flouts no prejudice, just an observer’s weary eye.
If I Had A Dream… was a surprise commercial success beyond almost anything The Walkmen achieved during their lifetime, this is a subtly different collection, one which places its creator on an almost unique songwriting plain.
The Loves Of Your Life is a more nuanced and relatable as a result, an ensemble cast which eclipses the city that makes its stage, an achievement as remarkable as it is unlikely.