Likely be a career-defining album for both Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij.
With Rostam Batmanglij having left Vampire Weekend, it will be interesting to hear what the group’s next album will sound like. In the meantime, we have Hamilton Leithauser’s collaboration with the former VW sonic architect, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. And if it’s any indication, Batmanglij was largely responsible for the core sound of VW, something he makes abundantly clear here. The sprawling, towering first single “A 1000 Times” sounds for all the world like a castoff from the Modern Vampires of the City sessions in both sound and feel. So much so that former Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal yelps ahead of an exploding, piano-led arrangement calls to mind the final verse of Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt.”
In this, “A 1000 Times,” an indisputable contender for one of the best singles of 2016, serves as a bridge between Batmanglij’s work with his former band as much as a defining statement from Leithauser. It’s not for nothing that this, their second collaboration following 2014’s Black Hours, finds the album credited to them both rather than Leithauser alone. It’s a near-perfect partnership that has produced one of the year’s best overall albums. There’s a cohesive quality that lends I Had a Dream the feel of a well-thought-out album in the traditional sense rather than a collection of disparate singles and filler tracks. This is a bold move for any contemporary artist in an era when listening to music is much like visiting a buffet rather than enjoying a complete meal prepared with forethought and attention to detail.
As a collaborative effort, I Had a Dream places the focus squarely on the pair’s respective strengths. Throughout, Batmanglij’s – and, on several tracks, Leithauser’s – thoughtful arrangements show an air of sophistication and depth rarely heard on modern albums. His surprisingly broad sonic palate – “In A Black Out” is essentially a country song, while “Rough Going (I Don’t Let Up)” roots itself in doo wop, to name but two examples – serves as a perfect foil for Leithauser’s strained bark of a croon. Here he proves himself one of the more singular vocalists working today, ranging from long, mellifluous lines (“Peaceful Morning”) to sharp vocal yips redolent of emotional heft (“Sick as a Dog”).
With both freed from the constraints of working within a band environment, they prove like-minded collaborators who retain their own idiosyncrasies, melding them together to form something well beyond what either could have hoped to accomplish with their previous groups. Yet there remain elements of each due to significant role both performers had in the Walkmen and Vampire Weekend, respectively. It’s a fine melding of the two that retains and, at times, surpasses the work of their previous groups.
But it’s not a big, obvious statement. Rather, it’s one delivered with a high level of assurance and confidence. So, despite a few explosive moments, much of I Had a Dream relies on a more laidback, relaxed feel. On “You Ain’t That Young Kid,” Leithauser drops into a spoken word baritone for much of the track before raising his voice to a throaty growl, the tempo dragging along behind him. More than once, he fully embraces the role of post-modern crooner heavily informed by the world of indie rock. This lends the album a mature, almost sophisticated sound that recalls an earlier era of pop music.
Given their reliance on largely acoustic instruments, there’s an organic quality to the album that places it more within the late-‘60s/early-‘70s baroque pop mold. Piano, acoustic bass, strings and baritone saxophone all play prominent roles throughout, helping to flesh out the already throwback mentality of the session, harkening back to a time well before pre-recorded samples, an over-reliance on synths and electronic drums. This is music played by and for living, breathing people, replete with bleeding emotionality, sincerity and honesty.
Because of the almost intimate partnership on display, Angel Deradoorian’s presence on “1959” comes as something of a surprise, not quite intrusive but not necessarily in keeping with the rest of the album. That said, her voice acts as a lovely counterpoint to Leithauser’s strangled burr. It’s a fine way to finish what will likely be a career-defining album for both Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is nothing short of revelatory.