Between his decade of fronting New York City quintet The Walkmen and his subsequent releases, both solo (2014’s Black Hours) and collaborative (2016’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, with Rostam Batmanglij), Hamilton Leithauser has proven himself one of the most consistent indie-rock songwriters of the 2000s. Though his former band could never quite top their 2004 breakout Bows + Arrows, they never put out a bad (original) album, either, aging gracefully right up until their “extreme hiatus” in 2013. Leithauser now returns with his second solo effort, The Loves of Your Life, an 11-track collection of warm, nuanced Americana as essential as anything the 41-year-old father of two has released to date.
On Leithauser’s solo debut Black Hours, written and recorded before The Walkmen’s indefinite dissolution was revealed to the public, he crooned about troubled relationships, loneliness and a search for purpose (“Do you ever wonder why I sing these love songs / When I have no love at all?” he asked on dour album opener “5 AM”). It wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course: Working with his Walkmen bandmate Paul Maroon, as well as the late Richard Swift, Fleet Foxes’ Morgan Henderson, Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman and former Vampire Weekender Batmanglij, Leithauser looked inside himself and found an abiding desire to reach out to others—“Our directions swing together,” he concluded on, ironically, “I Don’t Need Anyone,” the first song he wrote for the record.
Now, with The Loves of Your Life, Leithauser expands his scope in that same searching spirit, satiating his hunger for connection with the stories of others. Written about real individuals, some old friends and others strangers, the songs are as manifold as the human lives they encapsulate, with Leithauser often stepping aside to speak in his subjects’ own words. Written, recorded, produced and mixed in Leithauser’s cramped, DIY New York City studio The Struggle Hut, the album achieves a powerful sense of place, capturing the city and its innumerable narratives—NYC is well-trod creative territory, to say the least, and could have easily made for a mundane effort in the hands of a lesser songwriter. But Leithauser has spent his entire career on its wavelength, and dedicates The Loves of Your Life to the people who make the metropolis what it is, bringing all of his skills (he plays most of the instruments on the album) to bear on rendering their stories in poignant detail.
Nowhere does this generosity of spirit shine brighter than on album opener “The Garbage Men”: Built on a mesmerizing blur of horns and voices (the latter of which belong to Leithauser’s wife, Anna Stumpf, and their daughters, Georgiana and Frederika Leithauser), the song evokes the city’s gritty glory (“The rainbow’s in the gasoline,” Leithauser sings, “Til the garbage men go by / All the emerald shards / On the black top / Like the stars in the sunshine”). These quick-hitting images find the beauty in the breakdown—the scattered pieces of our lives, broken and fragmented, but full of meaning to those willing to pick them up off the sidewalk and see.
“Stars & Rats” belongs just as completely to the city. Inspired by a failed rock ‘n’ roll singer friend whose work nonetheless always “hit [him] hard,” Leithauser recalls, “Well, that crooked voice came creaking out / Through the frosted glass of a cocktail lounge / Well, I love your voice, full of salt and oil.” He weighs sad dead-ends against wonderful new beginnings over his own 4/4 beat and quietly atmospheric guitars, with sine-wave synths from Maroon and backing harmonies from Lacrisha Brown, Leithauser’s daughters’ preschool teacher.
Well-known for his love of collaboration, Leithauser brings a number of NYC musicians into the creative fold on The Loves of Your Life, including Stuart Bogie on sax, Mike Irwin on trumpet and Jonathan Gregg on pedal steel. The Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste tickles the ivories on a pair of tracks, “Wack Jack” and “The Other Half,” his virtuosic soloing adding a particular luster to the former’s hazy, ambling ramble-rock. But even more prominent than Leithauser’s collaborators are his characters: the development-arrested eponym of “Isabella,” running from the sad reality in which she’s stuck; John, the mysterious, seafaring stranger of the breezy “Cross-Sound Ferry (Walk On Ticket),” “rolling on the summer swells,” going nowhere in particular; the talkative, old Polish woman whose many outlandish stories make up “The Stars of Tomorrow.”
Leithauser gives himself over to these real and invented memories, inhabiting them fully through specific, concise detail and imbuing them with a sense of hope and kindness. “I’m just the singer / And you’re just in my heart / I wish you the best of luck / I wish you a brand new start,” he sings on “The Stars of Tomorrow,” acknowledging the limitations of these windows into the lives of others. Indeed, there are so many marginalized or otherwise overlooked people whose stories we’ll never hear, as Leithauser ponders amid the funky guitars and horns of “The Other Half,” as enamored, in his sadness, with the unknown that surrounds him as its opposite.
At a time when New York City is the epicenter of a global health crisis, Leithauser’s new record finds us all hunkered down in our homes, our psyches all running on fumes. The Loves of Your Life recalls a city—and a world—teeming with life, finding the beauty all around us in a time of great need. “The sun is coming up / And my heart is filled with hope / The sidewalks are empty seven stories below,” Leithauser sings on “Don’t Check the Score”—almost eerie, isn’t it? He concludes the album with the fable-like “The Old King,” in which a wise man looks bittersweetly back on his years of fighting fate: “‘Cause now the hours are days / And the days go like months / Whatever happens / You know I love you.” Whatever our struggles, he seems to suggest, what matters most are The Loves of Your Life.
Scott Russell is Paste’s former news editor, his wife’s current husband and his couch’s eternal occupant. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.