Proverbial “haters” and holier-than-thou rockers are always going to hate on Vampire Weekend. To be fair, this is a group whose preppy aesthetic and matching pedigree is proof to many of the ivy league nepotism that has invaded indie music. Part of the initial charm of Vampire Weekend was the group’s status as Columbia grads (to a state university sophomore like myself this made their music seem annoying and their popularity seem unfair), and also their Paul Simon approach to renegotiating afrobeat music for the Manhattan set (a potentially troubling matter in its own right). That Vampire Weekend have remained so relevant post-2008 is a testament perhaps to the perceived niceness of their unyielding aesthetic, but more likely it is due to the perfect combination of humor and graceful reverence with which they approach each new style of pop they sink their teeth into. Vampire Weekend have stepped from upper west side raga to semi-spiritual baroque pop without seeming like they’ve changed at all; they take each new stylistic attempt to be a holistic devotion and not just a genre dalliance. Gone may be the post-punk guitar leanings and ska-ed out vocals of album #1, but Vampire Weekend remain unchanged. In fact, Vampire Weekend embrace change so warmly that it just dissolves into them, making them out to be stylistic overachievers. I think that if we can judge an album on the extent to which it achieves what it is attempting to accomplish, and also on the extent to which what has been attempted is rich and significant, then Modern Vampires of the City is a stunning achievement in pop.
Opening twosome “Obvious Bicycle” and the now fleshed out “Unbelievers” set the table politely for Modern Vampires’ rich momentum; they are almost overwhelmingly warm and chamber-inclined, without going overboard or becoming too insistent on the value of their orchestration. These songs are a technical achievement in that such gossamer tones are evoked without relying on the hissy comfort of dated-sounding analog recordings. With “Unbelievers” Ezra Koenig establishes a lyrical precedent as well, giving us direct evocations of religious imagery that are still ambiguous enough to be musings on a romance or a poor mark in a class. The ambiguity is maintained throughout Modern Vampires (does “Everlasting Arms” refer to an unyielding love or to a literal eternity?), but a more directly theosophical bent takes shape on later tracks like “Ya Hey.” Koenig seems to be less interested in personal crises of faith than he is in the literal, cultural constraints that religion seems to put on people (see: an orthodox girl falls in love with a falafel shop employee on “Finger Back”) and also in the way a society saturated with religion has warped our view of death (“Don’t Lie” / “Diane Young”). References to death crop up on just about every song, but the religious imagery invoked is a warm and friendly mix of Columbia library classicism and modern conservative Judaism.
But when Koenig sings “Hudson died in Hudson bay, the water took its victim’s name” – the lyrics that kicks off the chamber and dub-indebted “Hudson” – we get the feeling that even our most powerful and ancient testaments to god’s might can be discarded and dissolved as easily as a person’s life. And the amped delivery of “Don’t Lie” disguises a chilly metaphors about one-way exits from youth as a cheerful anthem for the 20-something set, complete with a Dirty Projectors-referencing guitar outro. But then removed from all of this we have Modern Vampires’ most legitimate centerpiece, “Hannah Hunt”; a meditation on longings for itinerancy, with the image of a New York Times being torn into kindling existing as a sort of tearaway from the reality we supposedly must inhabit if we’re listening to this album.
With the help of (relative) recording vet Ariel Rechtshaid, producer and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij defenestrated much of the production aesthetic of both Vampire Weekend and the slightly insufferable Contra. Because of their work, I suspect that Modern Vampires is an album that will come into its full aesthetic significance in the middle of next winter; it is almost the opposite of Vampire Weekend’s very “summer in the Hamptons” vibe. Modern Vampires is far more urban, but urban in the sense of remaining confined to a candelabra-lit room in the Columbia library. Sure, we’re up in Harlem, but there’s a huge and increasingly obvious divide between the neoclassical confines of Morningside Heights and east 125th street. On Modern Vampires, Vampire Weekend (Koenig in particular) seem to confront this, though it is with a kind of grim, “well what do you expect from me?” ambivalence that makes the record all the more sharp.
What Modern Vampires of the City doesn’t manage to do is to top the musical ingenuity cultivated on Vampire Weekend; Ezra Koenig’s sharp, tropical punk guitar playing is sorely missed. Modern Vampires feels like a less original songwriting effort on Koenig’s and Batmanglij’s part, thought perhaps a more inspired one; much of the album’s startling power is derived from fairly on-the-nose reference points, rather than tricky amalgamations. Modern Vampires does succeed to present a more complete aesthetic than Vampire Weekend, and it is definitely a more straightforward pop album. The lyrical aesthetic, too, has evolved from fairly petty – if clever – Salingerized observations about class to the aforementioned dialectic between ambiguous feelings about religion and very clear ones about death. Has the word “Babylon” ever been uttered so many times on an album? Only Leonard Cohen could come close; unlike Cohen, though, Koenig would treat George Michael and Modest Mouse with as much sly reverence as he would Nebuchadnezzar.
Vampire Weekend have made and continue to make the kind of music that I sometimes try to revolt against with my criticism, but they’ve done it up so cleverly that you would almost think Modern Vampires a stylistic revolution. Even here, Vampire Weekend’s music may not really speak for anyone other than children of privilege with the luxury of post-college blues, but at least it does so in a way that doesn’t talk down to its listeners. Rather than obfuscate its borders with niceties, Vampire Weekend give their own take on their own lives, and they can’t be faulted for that. This isn’t a musical revolution by any means; Modern Vampires of the City is probably less compositionally engaging than even the most reviled of Animal Collective albums. But this is a great pop album and, even in its moments of overwrought bluster, you will be kept fully engaged in and fully entranced by the haughty theatrics.
Vampire Weekend – “Don’t Lie”
Vampire Weekend – “Hudson”