In the decade since debut album "Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone," the Walkmen have made some new friends. For "Heaven," their fifth album, the New York group accepted a call from producer Phil Ek and decamped to Seattle. The 13-track set, due May 29 on Fat Possum, includes guest vocals from Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold and a surprisingly bright outlook that belies its rainy origins. There's no irony to the album title: it's the indie rockers' sweetest album yet.
"I felt like that was a big new step for us," frontman Hamilton Leithauser told Billboard.com of writing songs with less doom and gloom. "It's definitely harder."
Working in the local recording studios Bear Creek and Avast!, Ek (Band of Horses, the Shins) helped them break other previous habits: opener "We Can't Be Beat," a gentle acoustic track, washes away the band's expected effects and distortion in favor of a more nostalgic feel.
"I always really liked the idea of doing [something] that's really small and intimate-sounding because we're always so big," Leithauser said. "That song's really directly inspired by one of my favorite bands, the Fleetwoods, from the '50s."
The group's recent work has reflected its sense of rock history - in 2006, the Walkmen released a tribute album to Harry Nilsson's "Pussy Cats" - and much of "Heaven" finds inspiration in early rock 'n' roll's simplicity and optimism.
"You get these big, kind of classic lyrics, like, 'I'm not your heartbreaker' or 'love is luck,' that seem trite or bland when they're just by themselves on paper," Leithauser explained. "But we had these big I-IV-V, happy-sounding songs -- to be able to slap those things together and be happy with the results, I felt like that was our biggest accomplishment on the record."
The album's balanced between upbeat, open-armed anthems ("Heartbreaker," "Heaven") and more meditative efforts, such as "Line by Line." Elsewhere, "Song for Leigh" is borderline twangy. Some of the album's warmth comes from Pecknold, who adds his croon to "No One Ever Sleeps" and "We Can't Be Beat." Ek has served as Fleet Foxes' producer as well, though it was the Walkmen who reached out to the folk frontman.
"We toured with them last fall and really liked them as guys and really liked their band," Leithauser said, noting Ek's connection as a lucky coincidence. "I really wanted someone else, another voice on the record, and none of our guys would really be willing to sing… Once you add his voice in there, it brings a whole new sound to the record."
Leithauser himself has come a long way from the ragged-voiced wailer of 2004 single "The Rat." On tracks such as "Love is Luck," his vibrato is yearning but controlled, willing to see what it can accomplish without opening the emotional floodgates entirely. While maturity may be a factor in the contented feel of "Heaven," Leithauser says the group's mood hasn't changed too much.
"In the past, you try to do something that happy, it just made us all sick and not interested at all," he said. "I wouldn't say it felt that different. It was just the thing that seemed interesting and more worth pursuing for us. But, same old guys."
The new directions of "Heaven" are only a piece of the Walkmen's prolific process. Upon the releases of 2010's "Lisbon" and 2008's "You & Me," the group was already at work on new material, a trend that hasn't stopped yet. Ek put a ban on songwriting in the studio, a rule that kept the band on deadline for the first time in its career.
"We had like 30 songs going in and immediately cut out anything that wasn't ready to go," Leithauser said. "That saved like, a year."
But don't look for the band to take a vacation after its trip to "Heaven." The group already has two songs in the works for its next album -- and more, if it draws on its current leftovers.
"I'm going into the studio today to work on a few things," Leithauser said. "At this point, it's just sort of a lifestyle for us. The records eventually are markers in time as we complete a certain amount of stuff, but it's really just an ongoing process for us. As of now, we're all willing to do it."