In the world of modern Christmas carols, there are three people who matter – Vince Guaraldi, Phil Spector, and The Walkmen.* One is long dead, one has a life sentence in prison, and the third announced earlier this year that they’re finally, after fourteen years of vintage bummer ballad composition, entering retirement (probably).
The Walkmen are special for inventing a genre that should have always existed but that somehow no one ever managed to hit upon. Their music captures the backwards-looking feeling you get when you’re alone after a party in wintertime – not quite distanced enough for nostalgia but still caught in the wonderfully miserable feeling of a present that is infinitely worse than the (very immediate) past. It’s a feeling that happens most often in winter – there’s nothing quite as awful as stepping out of a warm, well-lit, crowded bar and walking alone in the dark to your iced-over freezing cold car. Hamilton Leithausser and co.’s decision to apply that emotion to tunes based around Christmas carol chord progressions and then toss it all over snowflake-summoning high-pitched piano noodles is more or less the entirety of their success.
The Walkmen have more songs that sound like Christmas songs that you’ve known your entire life than I can count. “We’ve Been Had” is the first song they ever wrote, and the last one they ever played. It could have been the only one they ever made. Everything is here – the nostalgia for something worse, the longing for something not much better, the luxury of being alone in the cold and only a step away from comfortable warmth. “We’ve been had / you say it’s over / sometimes I’m just happy I’m older.” Only a few lines better sum up the Walkmen’s career. Only a few more better sum up the wonderfully miserable spirit of the holidays.
* Also Mariah Carey. Sort of.