Singer-songwriter Hamilton Leithauser is one of my favorite discoveries over the last few years. His 2016 album with Vampire Weekend‘s Rostam Batmanglij, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, was one of my top 3 albums for that year and I still listen to it regularly. In fact, I like it more each time I listen to it. It has a timelessness that only gels after repeated listens and, like its clean-cut, suit-wearing singer, seems to occupy several periods of musical history at the same time. (Disclaimer: Leithauser seems to have grown his hair out a bit since then.) One minute you’ll think of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in the 1930’s and the next you’ll think of Elvis Costello during his Imperial Bedroom years. If you want a four minute summary of Leithauser’s unique appeal, listen to the song “The Morning Stars” and pay attention to its haunting sense of poetry. It’s become my favorite song since Neko Case’s “Star Witness.”
Hamilton Leithauser is without Rostam on his new album, The Loves of Your Life, and I sort of miss the partnership. Rostam added layers of soft, woolly keyboards, guttural organ growls and old-fashioned piano runs that added to that Kilgore Trout aesthetic. But Leithauser on his own isn’t exactly a consolation prize, especially if you’re familiar with his work as frontman of the Walkmen and his first solo album, 2014’s The Black Hours. That latter album had a daring sense of the theatrical–Leithauser’s dramatic voice usually infers that he’s laying it all on the line–and The Loves of Your Life seems to be the more natural progression than I Had a Dream.
For me, there’s two basic reasons to be a fan of Hamilton Leithauser. The most obvious reason is his voice, which is distinctive without being odd. To put it simply, he has a great voice, a crooner’s voice, but his preferred mode of expression is cranking things up a notch and belting out the lyrics. His voice goes up an octave, starts to strain, and barely holds together in a way that suggests heartbreak and a few too many rounds of drinks at the local watering hole. He always sounds on the verge of breaking down, much like Alex Chilton did in the later years of Big Star, and yet Leithauser knows when to take a step back and allow his deeper tones to return, almost like a flashback sequence.
The second reason to explore the entire Hamilton Leithauser catalog, including his years with The Recoys and The Walkmen, is his songwriting skills–especially those lyrics. (“Years from today, when your name is just a name, my love is a couple of candles twinkling on your cake.”) On The Loves of Your Life, each of the eleven songs is about a different person in his life, even his wife and two daughters (who sing backing vocals). Musically, there’s always something to hold onto like a stray pedal steel guitar or an occasional blast from a judicious horn section–ain’t a dull moment in the lot.
I’m very happy that The Loves of Your Life didn’t let me down since I Had a Dream was such a unique and unexpected high, a rare pop album for adults that sounds like a bunch of our favorite music rolled into one classy, smart package. Hamilton Leithauser is, thankfully, the real thing.