Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend have thrived on articulate disarticulation, sophisticated binaries of occident/orient, mainstream/underground, jocularity/solemnity. The mishmash, if you will. Even their name has a semantically disturbing quality; a relative once dismissed my recommendation of their first album because “I don’t like your screamo music."
As capable of conjuring gloriously infectious nonsense-refrains as they are of delivering melodies and lyrics so heart-swellingly on-point that the frogs in your throat sing the harmonies, it’s hard to go along with the tide of ‘mature third-album’ accolades heading their way with the arrival of Modern Vampires of the City. Instead, there’s a nagging sensation they’re still riding a train they boarded back in back in 2006.
1. So listen up.
Where have they ended up? Well on a strictly end-to-end basis, it’s an album bookended by ‘Obvious Bicycle’ and ‘Young Lion’, two of the most soporific, singularly beautiful songs Vampire Weekend have ever written. The former, in particular, unfolds like a time-lapse video, opening with a beat like a pendulum swinging, and appropriately the track’s magic rests in the rise-and-fall building of texture and sound, cutting out for contemplation before building to another flourish. Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij’s vocals weave in and out, imploringly harmonising the earnest key to the record: “So listen up. Don’t wait.”
2. The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out.
Between these book-ends, they run the sonic and thematic gamut. Irish-folk inflections, reggae grooves and even a post-internet psychobilly freakout; they’re all here, alongside the high-necked riffery, Brooklynite balladry, vocal pitch-shifts, and harpsichord jams from their locker.
They approach each new angle with the same measured control which ensures that even if a certain piece isn’t quite the right fit, it never upsets the whole. This cohesion is epitomised by the arabesque ‘Worship You’ which shifts gears from break-neck to stratospheric between verse and chorus, gloriously straddling its middle-Eastern backing cries, frenetic synthesised guitar solo, and moments of Joshua Tree-style grandiosity. A rumbling bedrock of marching drums provide foundation throughout. There’s a freedom in their experimentations, which suggests that they’ve finally warded off the bug-bear of those faux-outraged critiques of cultural colonialism. Tthe sheer confidence with which they’ve continued extending this melange of genre, without losing the singularly important strength of writing the song as a song, continues to be one of the strongest and most rewarding elements of the band’s output.
The most significant aspect of this confidence is evident in Koenig’s lyrical work. He maintains his almost Flarf-poetry approach, most notably on the likes of ‘Finger Back’ and ‘Step’: the canny lyrical switch-ups which are occasionally perceived as smart-aleck witticisms, the alternately ubiquitous and obscure reference-points often criticised as being designed to throw off people like Chris Baio’s “long-lost cousin” Steve Buscemi. But this time round, more strikingly and powerfully than on their previous LPs, Vampire Weekend match these idiosyncrasies, usurp them, with moments more purposeful and direct, typified by the emotionally-shattering chorus of ‘Hannah Hunt’: “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.”
3. In The Absence Of A God.
But it’s when they venture into a more forthright spirituality, that Vampire Weekend may well transform the admiring into the truly beseotted. Themes of faith, death and after-life recur throughout, but they’re fully consecrated on the album’s (and perhaps, to date, the band’s) crowning achievement ‘Ya Hey’, which speaks to me in a way no song has in a long time. Since they released the lyric video for it, I’ve had to listen to it every night before I go to sleep. The band set about capturing a deep-set existential grief, a contradiction that works away at the heart of both the personal and international, free of pretence, celestial, magnificent.
The Ivy League bozos who once rapped about “wack calzone” weren’t supposed to be able to sing with such nuanced insight about a world that fell out of love with God. But they do.
4. Take your time.
With a far longer gestation period than their previous work – the period after Contra containing everything from globe-trotting, DJ-sets and sitcom cameos to scrapped material, Diplo collaborations and romantic upheaval - it’s perhaps no wonder that time is the central them of Vampires of the Modern City. Clocks, historicity, rushing and waiting, are all crucial relay-points of the words and of the sounds.
Indeed, the one gripe with the record is in that field, when the record’s pacing and cohesion is momentarily disturbed, particularly in the wake of ‘Ya Hey’. Out of that moment of transcendence, comes the brooding, quasi-industrial ‘Hudson’. It’s intruiging, darker than any of their previous work, funereal and enigmatic in tone, and slightly discomforting with its scuffling industrial drums and samples. But positionally, when counter-posed against the songs that precede and follow (the gorgeous and all too brief outro ‘Young Lion’), the contrast feels a little like having the wrong lenses tested at the opticians, and the consequence is that the album concludes feeling more depleted than glorious.
This aside, it’s hard not to be mesmerised. One of Hollywood’s best-paid saps Zac Braff once declared through his Scrubs alter-ego J.D: “If my heart could write songs they’d sound like these”. Sadly this line was wasted on product placement for Dido’s Life For Rent, because otherwise you’d have a near-perfect testimony for Modern Vampires of the City. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Vampire Weekend might just have produced a real contender for modern greatness.