Hamilton Leithauser(photo: Josh Goleman)

Throughout his perennially-underrated musical career — first as the lead singer of The Recoys, then as the frontman for beloved indie rockers The Walkmen, and now as a solo artist — Hamilton Leithauser has imbued his songs with a bounty of colorful characters.

There are misanthropic urbanites (“The Rat,” “We’ve Been Had”), rueful romanticists (“We Can’t Be Beat”), and bitter, disenchanted lovers (“In The New Year.”) Yet he’s never sung about someone as vivid and fully-formed as the titular character of “The Bride’s Dad,” one of the closing tracks on I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, Leithauser’s excellent 2016 album he made with Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend.

In that standout number, Leithauser sings of a sad-sack dad speaking at his daughter’s wedding, much to the chagrin of everyone gathered. From the devastating opening couplet (“My ginger voice was raw with smoke / They hid their smiles when I stood and spoke”) to the delusional final coda (“I swear I saw you smiling”), Leithauser paints a depressing picture of a deadbeat father, unable to cope with or confront his failures. It’s a novella worthy of Fitzgerald, sung in a scant two minutes and 24 seconds.

“It was definitely a conscious decision to stay specific and try and write narrative lyrics for this album,” said Leithauser, who will be performing at The Independent on January 18. “In the past, I’ve tried to do to these big, general things, and I intentionally did the opposite of that for this album.”

Leithauser was never a stream-of-consciousness, Dadaist lyricist in the mold of Thom Yorke or Stephen Malkmus, but I Had a Dream That You Were Mine represents his most ambitious step yet to create a thematic concept album — one based on the ruminations of someone trying to put away the past and accept the present.

“It seemed after a little while, I was developing a character’s voice that can be heard throughout the whole record,” said Leithauser. “That’s kind of why we titled it I Had a Dream That You Were Mine — because it sort of seemed to tell the story right there.”

Leithauser said he nearly named the album, “The Bride’s Dad,” and said the song is based on a particularly uncomfortable real life wedding experience he witnessed years ago. Leithauser said that debacle ended ugly — the dad really wasn’t wanted there, and his current whereabouts are unknown — but the album as a whole isn’t meant to be a mordant trip down memory lane.

“I feel like the songs are of people who are a little lonely, or a little bit lost,” said Leithauser. “But I think they’re focused on dealing with something that’s already changed, and how it’s time to get together and move on.”

One of the reasons that the album is so uproariously enjoyable — despite its ostensible premise — is the unique sonic current moving the songs along. Combining doo-wop sensibilities and sparse finger-picking sensibilities from the ’50s and ’60s with contemporary rhythm sounds and a festival-like production quality, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine sounds both very much of the moment and of the past.

A lot of credit must be directed toward Batmanglij, who is finally receiving his due as one of the true engineers behind Vampire Weekend’s enduring success. Batmanglij’s imprints are clear throughout the album — from the whirring organs elevating “A 1000 Times” to the hip-hop inflected drum beats of “When The Truth Is.” He adds another dimension to the work, giving it depth and preventing the album from being a basic retread of past sounds.

Leithauser met Batmanglij years ago, when Vampire Weekend opened for The Walkmen on tour, and the two worked together on Leithauser’s solo debut, Black Hours, released in 2014. As opposed to that album, which featured Leithauser’s fully-formed ideas fleshed out with help from Batmanglij, the duo worked to create the songs on I Had A Dream That You Were Mine from the ground up. As a result, each individual is credited with equal billing for the record.

Initial instincts might assume that Leithauser — famous for his broad vocal range and his penchant for crooning — brought the doo-wop elements and old-timey guitars to the mix, and Batmanglij pushed for the slinkier, more pop-friendly approaches. However, the opposite scenario was actually true.

“It’s kind of funny, but Rostam was the one who wanted more of those standards’ sounds,” said Leithauser, who will be joined on his upcoming tour by Batmanglij on a few select dates. “Really, though, neither of us wanted to sound revivalist. We tried to make sure that we were doing something in 2016 that was worthy of being done. We didn’t want to fall into any traps. Just because you’re singing doo-wop doesn’t mean the song has to be about bubblegum.”

The beguiling mix of old and new has clearly resonated. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine has been a ubiquitous presence on year end best-of lists, and Leithauser’s show on January 18 at The Independent sold out in a matter of days. Leithauser said he and Batmanglij will likely reconvene together for future projects — the two still have a bevy of unfinished songs — but for now, he’s looking forward to playing the material from the album in a live setting.

“I’m so happy that people like this album, because I love it,” said Leithauser. “You never know if something you do is going to fall flat, or be unfashionable, or if you’re going to be some over-the-hill guy. This has been a great experience, and I’m definitely excited about the future.”

Hamilton Leithauser, Alexandra Savior
The Independent
January 18, 2017
8pm, $15 (21+)