The first sounds you hear on I Had A Dream You Were Mine are Hamilton Leithauser’s inimitable, raspy tenor and the plink of a barroom piano, likely played by Rostam Batmanglij. The piano melody follows the vocals in the opening strains of “A 1000 Times”, the song that contains a line with the duo’s album title. From the first, the two artists, better known for their work in group settings — Leithauser in the Walkmen and Rostam in Vampire Weekend — explore the delicate pairing of two solo artists in a duo. The tension proves to be a generative one, the freedom of leaving a legacy group intermingling with the power of new collaboration. The album Leithauser and Batmanglij wrote together largely concerns loss, but, reading contrapuntally, it just as easily explores about what they’ve found together.
For fans of the Walkmen and Vampire Weekend, there is just enough of each here to satisfy, while the two artists also build something new. Leithauser howls through “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)”, a post-doo-wop cut with an unironic snapping, “Sha-doo-bee/ Sha-doo-wop” backdrop. The vocal curls in the song’s last movement trace back to Rostam’s affinity for the baroque. Leithauser’s compositions, like his narrators, always feel like they risk coming apart at the seams, an engine overrun toward a red-line meltdown. Alternatively, Batmanglij specializes in more delicate physics, finding order in disorder. Their seeming opposition, though, is somewhat illusory. Both artists learn from the mess, and together they’ve made something more than a simple addition of its parts. They interweave their unique musical ideologies, Leithauser’s glorious falling apart made more brilliant by Batmanglij’s decadent keeping together.
I Had a Dream You Were Mine overflows with satisfying and complex melodic shape. The squealing guitar on “When the Truth Is …” sails out over a Batmanglij piano progression and more wordless vocals. The song explores spaces between delicacy and brutalism with an arrangement that wouldn’t have been out of place on Modern Vampires of the City, but here Ezra Koenig’s prep-school timbre has been here replaced with Leithauser’s world-weariness. On baroque album closer “1959”, Leithauser sings against a backdrop of flourishing strings and a winsome keyboard. Rostam inserts the vocal electronics — a hallmark of his work with Vampire Weekend — near the top of the arrangement as if to wonder about what’s found when we leave people and things behind. The syrupy refrain (“Don’t trust the moonbeams/ Moonbeams are off the record”) doesn’t sound as silly as it reads. By these last moments, Leithauser and Batmanglij have successfully suspended disbelief in elevating one another.
For all its blown-out snare drums and upbeat numbers, I Had a Dream You Were Mine never leaves an exploration of loss: imploded relationships, aging, the past. Leithauser does his best work in a regretful posture. On his previous band’s most famous lyric, Leithauser moaned, “When I used to go out, I would know everyone I saw/ Now I go out alone, if I go out at all.” Operating in this sort of regretful, past tense is Leithauser’s most effective tool. On “You Ain’t That Young Kid”, a song that opens with a Dylan-indebted harmonic progression, Leithauser transmutes his sadness into an empty center. “There’s ash in my heart where I used to be,” he sings, as Batmanglij’s harpsichord twinkles in the background. “You Ain’t That Young Kid” is the album’s longest song, and one of its best. When a lachrymose Leithauser wails in the song’s final movement, “Pictures of us dancing, from a thousand years ago,” he longs for two lost people at once: a long-lost partner and himself. Leithauser wonders about being “on a way too long road with some way too young folks.” If he’s getting too old for this shit, being too old for this shit rarely sounds so good.
The fingerpicked “In a Black Out” pulls away some of Rostam’s production theatrics, leaving an exposure of the big idea. It’s Leithauser, two acoustic guitars, and backing vocals, a deep elegy into which to sink. “Now you’re sleeping in the back/ Of a speeding yellow cab/ Throw a kiss goodbye to all of that,” Leithauser sings, near the record’s conclusion. It isn’t the final word on the record, but it is the tableau the two artists chase together: Racing on through the night toward something else, maybe home. The camera begins in the back seat, we imagine, racing backwards and away to reveal the cityscape, the cab and its occupants becoming part of the great heaving mess below, a goodbye before the blackout. Both artists leave us with what we and they have lost — and possession of loss is a different way of saying you’ve found something. Leithauser and Batmanglij, alone and together, leave listeners overflowing with what isn’t there anymore.
Essential Tracks: “A 1000 Times”, “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)”, and “When The Truth Is”