Were Vampire Weekend always dad rock?

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 2:44pm

NOSELL

Columbia Records

Junior year fall break I spontaneously decided to go on a road trip to Montreal with a few friends. It was an ambitious decision that entailed driving nearly 20 hours within a four-day span, but I found myself packing up a small suitcase anyways. I didn’t even particularly care about seeing Montreal, but it was junior year and I had an itch to leave Ann Arbor and never look back.

The trip itself was a blur. Montreal was too cloudy and supplied too much alcohol for me to remember much of anything. There was only one moment that has remained crystal clear within my mind: driving back from Montreal at the break of dawn, horrifically hungover and weighed down with a bone-deep fatigue, playing the entirety of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City from start to finish as the barren Canadian countryside sped past our windows. As momentous memories go, this one is particularly nondescript, but I close my eyes and there I am: hands curled around the steering wheel, all other passengers passed out in near comas, half crying but also half smiling because even though Montreal took more out of me than I thought it would, the way this small, ragtag collective of polo-wearing preps infused charisma and hope into their distinct blend of indie pop made even the churning unknown of lands outside of Ann Arbor seem less imposing.  

Vampire Weekend has always been with me, even before the unfortunate Montreal trip. High school was soundtracked by the whimsical Afro-pop of their first self-titled album, by the shameless eccentricity of Contra, by the slightly more serious overcast of Modern Vampires. The inside of my friend’s car always hummed with “Unbelievers”’s bouncing optimism on the way back from school. The summer before I left for college, “Hannah Hunt” put a gossamer tint over the sky; I would tilt my head back against the low arc of the setting sun as the delayed tempo change pushed the song into motion and be filled with a nearly incomprehensible serenity.

Vampire Weekend emerged from the shadow of a post-Strokes New York — leather jackets were traded in for boat shoes, the sweaty raucous of hole-in-the-wall venues at the heart of the city were replaced by manicured lawns and the crisp prestige of Columbia University. On paper, Vampire Weekend’s clean-cut pretentiousness seemed to pale in comparison with the grimy authenticity of their predecessors, yet as the post-9/11 alternative rock era of New York City started to rip itself to shreds, they emerged like a beacon of light, quiet and sincere in their mission to make music that not only reached far past the bounds of the city itself but also never took itself too seriously.

The main appeal of Vampire Weekend was in their playfulness. Even the band’s name came from the title of a short film project lead vocalist and guitarist Ezra Koenig created sometime during his early years at Columbia about a man who traveled to Cape Cod in order to warn the president that vampires were attacking the United States. The project was abandoned in record time, but that initial spurt of juvenile creativity was never lost, resulting in albums that tiptoed the line between exuberance and childishness. There was always an air of lightheartedness around Vampire Weekend, one that allowed you to listen to their music over and over again without getting bored.

This past week, Vampire Weekend dropped two new singles in preparation for their upcoming album, Father of the Bride. The songs “Harmony Hall” and “2021” came after nearly five years of complete silence. The buzz the singles created was real and tangible, as people found within the plodding melody of “Harmony Hall,” in the drawn out notes of “2021,” an opportunity to relive the rosiest parts of their youth.

And yet, I couldn’t help but be disappointed, at “2021,” at “Harmony Hall,” at Vampire Weekend themselves for re-emerging with the blandest possible version of their infamous early 2000s sound. Carefree no longer, there is a certain anticlimax within these two songs. Ezra Koenig, weighed down by the passage of time, is at his most serious, his most mature, as he turns back to look at the legacy he created. “I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die” he says in “Harmony Hall,” echoing a line from Modern Vampires of the City, but rather than sound nostalgic he just sounds regretful, pushing to once again embody a vivacity that has long since died out.