When The Walkmen announced an “extreme hiatus” six years ago, you wouldn’t have guessed Walter Martin would morph into the most prolific solo artist of the bunch. He was the keyboardist, the organ player—the quiet one. He had never sung lead. And yet, for more than half a decade now, Martin has been bursting with songs of his own. They don’t sound like The Walkmen’s songs, or whatever chic indie playlist Spotify’s algorithm might slot them into. Martin writes playful, cheery folk-pop singalongs about zoos and rattlesnakes and art history and Lana Del Rey. He’s even made two children’s records: 2014’s We’re All Young Together and 2017’s My Kinda Music.
If that all sounds perilously uncool, that’s the point. Martin’s midlife solo pivot seems to have been animated by a liberating disinterest in being hip anymore. As he recently told Noisey, “I was in bands for so long where the emphasis was on cool, and on sort of a separation between you and the crowd. With the artists that I really love, so much of it has that very approachable sort of humor, and friendliness.”
The World at Night, Martin’s fifth solo album, inches into darker territory while retaining that friendliness. It’s certainly his most musically ambitious release to date: “October,” the cinematic opener, enlists swooning strings and horns into a stormy polka pastiche that sounds fit for a Tim Burton soundtrack. Martin’s voice—eternally scratchy and hoarse, like he’s just woken up—provides an endearing counterpart. The next track, “The World at Night (For Stew),” is slower, more elegiac, pairing his untrained croon with a rickety orchestra of jazz piano, clarinet and a thumping upright bass. “To the Moon” provides a waltzy excursion into circus music.
The record is inspired by tragedies both personal and global. Of particular significance was the untimely death of Stewart Lupton—Martin’s childhood best friend and bandmate in the legendary and short-lived Walkmen forebearers Jonathan Fire*Eater—who died by suicide in 2018.
This loss hangs heavy over the record, and seems to have informed the somber tone of “The World at Night (For Stew),” a tribute to Lupton. The song takes its surrealist imagery from a collage Lupton made decades ago, which now hangs in Martin’s studio, and ends with the specter of a barely-seen ghost. The mood is mournful, but hardly despondent: Martin sounds as inspired by his friend’s life as his death, and the message is to retain that love for creation.
As for international tragedy, the 2019 Notre-Dame de Paris fire crops up in not one but two of these songs. In fact, the still-recent vision of the church on fire provides the first line of the album’s unquestionable centerpiece “The Soldier,” a seven-minute story song sung in the voice of a World War II veteran looking back on his life. It’s a disarmingly moving tale, full of twists and with a meandering, sing-song-y melody for accompaniment. It’s long, but stick with it: The song’s emotional punch expands around the five-minute mark, when Martin reveals, in the most roundabout way possible, that he is singing from the perspective of his wife’s 96-year-old grandfather. Martin’s best songs bring to life ramshackle stories from his own life or family—be it his eccentric employment history (2016’s “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous”) or an eventful trip to Australia (2018’s “I Went Alone on a Solo Australian Tour”)—and “The Soldier” is a worthy addition to that upper echelon.
In between those highlights, we get a string of less memorable songs, some of which (“Little Summer Fly,” “That’s All I Need”) are bouncy and childlike and may have been better suited to the songwriter’s next album of children’s music. Final track “Goodbye Banana Boat”—an ambling ode to a recreational water boat—feels similarly listless following “The Soldier.” Martin’s unpolished, limited-range voice is one of his most endearing qualities: At times he sounds like a young Leonard Cohen with a cold. But on some of these tunes (notably “Little Summer Fly” and “Hey Joe”), he pushes himself to sing well above his range, aiming for conventionally melodic hooks in upper registers, and the effect is more grating than appealing.
Although Martin is no longer recording children’s music per se, his songs remain unfailingly conversational and approachable for family-friendly audiences. That’s not a bad thing. There’s a freewheeling, timeless quality to his songwriting: Much of this music sounds as though it could have been written in the 1970s, the 1990s or the 2010s. Of course, it would have sounded deeply uncool in any of those decades. But isn’t it always the least cool music that sounds the best 20 years later?