Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
The album cover is a study in surface. Misty, grainy, choked with dust and grime. It has an aged, decaying quality, but also a vast scope that speaks to the music inside. Telltale Futura letters let you know that this record fits right alongside Contra and the self-titled debut, but its greyscale color scheme lends it an air of sadness and finality, of slow marches rather than the bursts of surprise we saw on Contra.
Modern Vampires of the City is the best of the three Vampire Weekend albums. I came to that conclusion after a few listens. What interested me about this record, then, is less its specific qualities than my own reaction. Questioning whether something is good or not, this tiger has come to realize, often yields less fertile answers than moving one step further and asking why I, at this singular moment, enjoyed this work. Does the work comfortably fit within my preexisting tastes or does it stretch the boundaries? Do I enjoy this album because of its situation within a certain genre or the way it bends the parameters of its own categories? Is this affection going to last and grow over time or will it fade?
Tigers enjoy a certain energetic spark in their music, or so the scientists have said. I can certainly understand where my love for Contra and Vampire Weekend originated. I had already grown into loving Paul Simon’s Graceland both for its chronological context and its appealing production style. Much like Paul Simon’s much beloved album, Modern Vampires was constructed as a studio creation over the course of an extended gestation period. That contributes to two of its most endearing qualities: its precision and its allusiveness. Every song is a pristine example of song-craft. The album as a whole is strikingly well-sequenced, keeping itself moving at a deliberate (not necessarily slow) pace without burning out or subsiding into molasses. Notice how the baroque and stately “Step” slides into “Diane Young,” whose meaning and sonic atmosphere are perfectly captured by its accompanying video, burning Saab included. Songs fit well into their places, and the band’s attention to detail has allowed it to string them together with appropriate transitions. Its precision marks it out as an full record, pleasurably able to be listened to in one gulp, which is the integrity part of the equation.
Those two advantages are not new to Vampire Weekend. Lead singer Ezra Koenig has labeled these first three LPs a “trilogy” in interviews, and so it seem natural that the three should share more qualities than not. Rather than seeing the relative darkness and introspection of Modern Vampires as a complete departure, alien elements to the band’s normal expression, it is more useful to frame them as emerging. These are companions rather than adversaries. Placed alongside one another, one can make all sorts of playful arrangements. Put in chronological order, the three albums sketch, in greater and greater detail, a youthful band obsessed with youth, a cosmopolitan and well-educated team of musicians reflecting on a peculiar set of issues. I don’t see Modern Vampires as “deeper” or “more serious” in comparison, since to write that would be to consign its predecessors, relatively, to “surface” or “more frivolous.” Vampire Weekend is and has always been a serious/playful group, obliquely political, concerned with identities and conflicts, with grammar and God.
Writing on God, it is strange that the band’s rather sharp turn to more spiritual subject matter, which is a meaningful difference between Modern Vampires and the other two, has gone mostly unremarked in the music press. Such concerns are part and parcel with the band’s previous musings on how difference affects people (think “Oxford Comma” and “California English”), and new songs like “Ya Hey” are still marked with the band’s trademark tendency toward wordplay and reference. Still, there remains a key shift in perspective here; there is an explicit character to these songs that distinguish them. Bubbly, upbeat “Unbelievers” takes a classic pop approach to religion: conflate it with love. It’s not merely an agnostic “Jesus/God is my boyfriend/girlfriend” number, but it certainly employs a bit of double entendre to get its message across.
“Ya Hey,” while its title is an inversion of an Outkast song title, is a much more straightforwardly spiritual song. Asking God rather quizzically why a supreme being would love all people (a natural question considering the existence of superior felines), the song shimmers with ornate choir parts while also warping Ezra Koenig’s voice with pitch shifting. Throughout the album, there is a spectral reggae presence lurking around. In this case, it comes in references to Babylon and Zion, some of the bass work, and Koenig’s voice (with and without pitch shifting).
“Hudson” also depends on some clever bits of wordplay, but it is without a doubt the most dour Vampire Weekend song to meet the public ear. Riddled with political references and driven by a string-lashed militaristic beat and ticking clocks, the song is almost revelatory. If there is any clear sign of a clean stylistic break from “old” Vampire Weekend, it can be found here. It’s effective, feeling every bit like an appropriate conclusion to an eclectic and inspired album.
My love of Modern Vampires of the City, then, probably originates first in my admiration for and proclivity toward immaculate studio albums that still manage to excite. More personally (or tigerly) it also speaks to some close-to-the-head spiritual concerns that have been dogging me since my exit from hell. It arrived at the right time and in the right form. To take this article broader for a moment, I want to offer a word on its place in the current “indie” landscape.
No one who laments the fact that indie rock “doesn’t rock” is going to love this album, or if they do it will be in spite of themselves. I would be hesitant to characterize this in any was as a rock album. It certainly contains rock songs–“Diane Young” and “Worship You” fit nicely into a rock mold–but, just like the hip hop samples don’t make “Step” a hip hop song, these songs don’t shift the album decisively toward rock. What we have is beautiful pop music, rhythmically intriguing and decidedly academic in its approach. It is almost certain to top the charts at month’s end, and further solidify this band’s place near the top of the indie “rock” A-list. It illustrates better than most records the peculiar effect that happens when college graduates form rock bands. Literate, sophisticated, and perfectly redolent of its cosmopolitan city of origin, Modern Vampires of the City is both an encapsulation of the anxieties of its time and, less certainly, a herald for more of this kind of album.