Since yesterday, I’ve had “The Rat” by New York indie rockers The Walkmen burrowed deep in my head. I get songs caught in my head all the time, but most flee from me in a short while. No matter how much I loved the song at the time, when I’ve had my fill it’s as if the song never existed. However, with this shuddering piece of modern garage rock, I am at lost for what to do. The more I hit repeat, the more I long for the song’s cold embrace, the more I begin see to the song for what it is. It’s a song worthy of the high-praise it has seen since its 2004 release, a song that’s one of the greatest tracks of the 2000s.
Even after all of these replays, I’m still hard-pressed to pinpoint just what this song is about. Sure I have an idea; it’s hard to hear that roaring start, those propulsive drums, and the scathing singing of Hamilton Leithauser and not form at least a rough-sketch. Within the song’s walls, Leithauser immediately identifies himself as a man who has been wronged, filled to the brim with bile, “you’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor,” but just what or who has he been wronged by? Is he a jilted lover who’s had it up to here with the beckoning of an old flame? Have all his friends left him high and dry? The line “when I used to go out, I’d know everyone I saw,” seems to lend credence to these theories, but Leithauser is just cryptic enough to avoid being caught. Musically, Leithauser’s weariness in the song’s bridge matched by the downturn in the raucous instrumentation is the lone respite we as listeners are given throughout this four-minute emotional hurricane.
It’s this emotion, more than any other ingredient that makes the song so successful. Few songs come to mind from the 2000s that are more candid. Many of the potential candidates come up short because they give up too much to us as listeners. Leithauser however is self-effacing and contemptuous of society as whole without ever coming across as heavy-handed. Were he to critique himself anymore, he would shoot from emotional to emo, a term that in music today is often a pejorative of great magnitude. Leithauser avoids such trife by calling himself a ghost, “can’t you see me” while also knowing when to fold his hand and call it a day, “I go out alone if I go out at all." In the hands of less confident band, the track would’ve either wallowed in this presupposed pity or reveled in this “us against them” attitude that loiters at the song’s door. The Walkmen however do none of this, they are contented to spend their last few breaths screaming that piercing question so many of ask when we feel we’ve been drowned out, “can’t you hear me?” In the case of “The Rat,” yes we can hear and we won’t soon forget.
"The Rat"- Bows + Arrows