Vampire Weekend have always been a band who thrive on articulate disarticulation, sophisticated binaries of occident/orient, mainstream/underground, jocularity/solemnity. The mishmash if you will. Even their name has a semantically discombobulating tendency; a relative once refused my recommendation of their first album because: “I don’t like your screamo music”.
They’re as comfortably capable of conjuring gloriously infectious nonsense-refrains that soundtrack Will Ferrell farces, as they are with delivering melodies and lyrics so heart-swellingly on-point that the frogs in your throat are singing the harmonies.
Consequently, 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, when listening to the record it’s actually harder to let go of the sensation that they got on this particular train back in 2006.
1. So listen up
So where have they ended up? Well on a strictly end-to-end basis, it’s an LP bookended by ‘Obvious Bicycle’ and ‘Young Lion’, two of the most soporific, singularly beautiful songs they’ve 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 continues to rest in the rise-and-fall building in texture and sound 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 though, the gamut is once again being well and truly run sonically and thematically. Irish-folk inflections, reggaeton grooves and even a post-internet psychobilly freakout are all on the cards, alongside the high-necked riffery, Brooklynite balladry, vocal pitch-shifts, and harpsichord jams previously stocked in their locker.
Each new angle is approached with the same measured control which ensures that even if a certain aspect isn’t quite the right fit, it never upsets the whole. This is epitomised by the arabesque ‘Worship You’ which incessantly shifts gears from break-neck to stratospheric between verse and chorus, gloriously straddling its middle-Eastern backing cries, frenetic synthesised guitar solo, and even moments of Joshua Tree-esque grandiosity, via the incessantly rumbling bedrock of marching drums throughout. There’s a freedom in their experimentations, which suggests that they’ve finally warded off the bug-bear of faux-outraged critiques of cultural colonialism (though they might have replaced this with furious SAAB enthusiasts). In fact, the 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, has been one of the strongest and most rewarding elements of the band’s continued output.
However, the most significant aspect of this confidence is translated in Koenig’s lyrical work. He maintains his almost FLARF-poetry aspect at points, notably on tracks like ‘Finger Back’ and ‘Step’: the canny lyrical switch-ups which are occasionally conceived of as smart-aleck witticisms, the alternately ubiquitous and obscure reference-points critiqued as solely 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, these idiosyncrasies are equally matched and even usurped by moments of pure directness, 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
Where admiration firmly falls into the great ball-pit of the besotted though are Vampire Weekend’s ventures into spirituality. Themes of faith, death and after-life recur throughout, but they’re fully consecrated on the album’s (and perhaps thus far the band’s) crowning achievement ‘Ya Hey’.
Its particular resonance was captured with more heart-bursting intimacy and affecting poignancy by Rob Leedham of Drowned in Sound than I could ever hope to achieve. But it’s spoken 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. Putting it succinctly it’s a song entirely worthy of such responses. The band set about capturing a deep-set existential grief, a contradiction that works away at the heart of both the personal and international, with a celestial magnificence and an utter lack of pretence that Time magazine is trying to deny Generation Y.
The Ivy League bozos who once rapped about “wack calzone” weren’t supposed to be able to sing with such nuanced supremacy about a world that fell out of love with God.
But they did.
4. Take your time.
With a far longer gestational 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 has become such a central trope of the record. Ticking clocks, historicity, rushing and waiting, are all crucial relay-points of the words and sounds Vampire Weekend relate.
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 an intriguing listen, darker than any of their previous work: funereal and enigmatic in tone, and slightly discomforting with its scuffling industrial drums and samples. But merely positionally, when counter-posed against both its predecessor and follow-up (the gorgeous and all-to-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 somewhat more depleted than glorious.
This aside though, you can’t help but be mesmerised by what the band have achieved. 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 expended on product placement for Dido’s Life For Rent, because otherwise you’d have a near-perfect testimony for Modern Vampires of the City.
The worldwideweb has seemingly ruined our cultural capacity to formulate a definitive modern canon (in both a positive and negative sense), but I can’t shake the feeling that, for serious, no messing, I shit you not, Vampire Weekend might’ve just composed a real contender for modern greatness.