By Kendall Russ, Senior Arts Editor
Published May 16, 2013
To say that Vampire Weekend has made a career out of proving people wrong would grossly understate its talent. But since its divisive 2007 debut, the band has done exactly that. The image of four preppy Ivy Leaguers playing African-inspired pop music seemed odd (if not pretentious) to some — others objected to the band’s numerous eccentricities, from Ezra Koenig’s wail and peculiar lyrics to the airy instrumentation. When the band responded with Contra, an even weirder record that took the criticism of Vampire Weekend and reveled in it, it seemed comfortable as a talented but polarizing band that paid little mind to critics.
Modern Vampires of the City
As the plaudits pour in for its latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend has changed the game again. While not radically remaking its aesthetic, the band has revamped its sound, delivering its most mature, complete and unobjectionable record to date.
From the delicate piano chords on the opening “Obvious Bicycle” to the wandering guitar on “Hannah Hunt” to the percussion-less finale, “Young Lion,” Modern Vampires witnesses Vampire Weekend exploring and operating in the space between instruments. The clutter of “Cousins” or “California English” is noticeably absent; Koenig’s voice is far more inviting, and the underlying restraint comforts against depressing themes. The mesmeric “Unbelievers” clothes its harrowing chorus (“We know the fire awaits unbelievers / All of the sinners the same / Girl, you and I will die unbelievers / Bound to the tracks of the train”) in jovial harmony and buoyant strumming. It feels remarkably light for such a heavy song, a feeling that Vampire Weekend replicates throughout the album.
Despite its distance from Contra, Modern Vampires undeniably has Vampire Weekend’s fingerprints on it. There’s the witty and erudite lyricism on the immaculate “Step,” the processed chanting on “Ya Hey” that would sound at home on the group’s second album and Koenig’s idiosyncratic wail on “Finger Back.” But Modern Vampires stands out; it’s more approachable than Contra and more interesting than Vampire Weekend.
The complaints of superficiality and worries of anxiety that pervaded Vampire Weekend’s first two albums often felt impersonal, as if Koenig unobtrusively watched the fate of his characters unfurl. On Modern Vampires, the fear couldn’t be more immediate. Despite the soft and serene feel to “Step,” its final plea (“I can’t do it alone, I can’t do it alone”) sounds helpless. “Don’t Lie” captures the fear of the inevitable through images of youth over glittering instrumentation. And while Koenig has never been afraid to let his voice soar, the way he belts the climactic chorus on “Hannah Hunt” is among the most intimate, emotive and arresting moments the band has produced.
Vampire Weekend reveals most when it’s at its most reckless. “Diane Young” and “Finger Back” captivate with relentless percussion and guitar, and both provide Koenig’s clearest fears of dying young. Even if the darker themes are more evident throughout the album, however, the band ensures they do not overwhelm. Modern Vampires may be darker, but it can hardly be called a dark record. It excels precisely because of Vampire Weekend’s ability to apply its weightless touch to a bleak theme and come across not as pretentious or ironic, but as authentic, honest and deeply moving.
Given such a sterling, cohesive album, the vitriolic criticism Vampire Weekend faced for its debut and Contra seems less relevant. Perhaps it was misplaced all along. Whatever the case, Vampire Weekend isn’t worried about answering critics — it would rather change the conversation completely. After all, as Koenig declares on “Step,” “Stale conversation deserves but a breadknife.”