I don’t think there’s a band on the planet I’ve passively listened to more than Vampire Weekend. I’ve probably heard 20 of their songs, because they’re ubiquitous, a fact that lends to endless hating on them. Before 5 weeks ago, if you’d asked me to share my opinion on VW, the thoughts would have been dry and empty. Their jittery pop fidelities fit nicely into advertisements – I’ll give them that. And during a point in my life where I can’t imagine making a living playing music anymore, I’m certainly envious. Popping up on a Honda Civic commercial doesn’t carry the shame that it once did. But my evaluation stops there, with VW leaving no real lasting impact on me like heavyweight indie contemporaries Grizzly Bear or Sufjan Stevens. Their detractors would say they were a corporate product of what ambiguous indie rock was for this period, and I couldn’t have argued otherwise.
A few weeks ago much of that changed. Because I work so godamned hard to give you people a monthly playlist, I felt obligated to engage in the newest pair of singles released in anticipation of Vampire Weekend’s forthcoming album. The tracks were “Step” and “Diane Young”. I listened to them in that order, and I’m glad I did. “Step” didn’t sound like a band with a static identity, and my preconcieved notions of the band suddenly began to shift from the middle. “Diane Young” employed studio techniques like the manipulation of the lead vocal that demanded attention. This shit was way too interesting to be corporate fodder. Soon thereafter came the shudderingly awkward video series with Steve Buschemi. Oddly enough they were paired under the umbrella of American Express, and I’m left wondering what the hell is going on. The sponsor branded the subsequent concert footage (directed by Buschemi) in a strange mindfuck of a campaign. Luckily, the videos were funny, and it’s corporate ties were an afterthought. Self conscious is one thing Vampire Weekend is not, and if the stage happens to be a giant credit card, so be it.
The album builds on the early singles’ themes of big-picture topics, with issues of dogma dominating the subject matter. It’s a soundtrack to a transitionary period, whether that be the end of nostalgia, or the end of faith. The album opens with the sweet, but cynical “Obvious Bicycle” that treads lightly but foreshadows a monologue that can get a bit heavy. Ezra Koenig softly solicites – “Listen, oh”, and you can’t help but oblige. So naturally — while he’s got your attention — the lyrical content shifts toward the firey depths of hell on “The Unbelievers”, a label Koenig has no problem adopting. There’s a flippant attitude toward faith early on, but it’s too early in the album to go making concrete statements. “Diane Young” (read: “Dyin’ Young”) travels at breakneck speeds, both musically and lyrically before a thematic come-down on “Don’t Lie”. Suddenly the conversation shifts from irreverently pessimistic to downright morbid, and you feel the album begin to pump the brakes. The motif of the clock (The low tick of a ticking clock/There’s a lifetime right in front of you/And everyone I know) grounds the album, and roots it in the reality. What happens next is what everybody’s talking about, and appropriately so. “Hannah Hunt” serves as a pivot point for not only this album, but for the bands historical semblance. In the small scale, the song reads like a gorgeously narrated exchange and unfolds in a way that reminded me of “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”. Whether that’s intended or not, the song travels in such a poignant emotional wavelength that you have to know what comes next. It trickles unassumingly until the striking shift in dynamics, and Koenigs vocal pins you down. “If I can’t trust you then damnit Hannah/There’s no future there’s no answer”. The sudden despair works as the true turning point of the album’s conscious. It’s a song that holds way too much weight for a band that gets hate for being too ambiguous. It’s one of the least forgettable moments of music I’ve heard this year.
Then shit gets real into the faith. It’s not preachy though, and even ventures into some latin proverbs (“Ut Deo” on “Ya Hey”) as not to be too specific who we’re talking about here. It starts with the amusingly-titled track “Everlasting arms” where Keonig dives head first, phsyically longing to be held by the council he’s suddenly adopted. It’s a strange track that on the surface could absolutley be inserted into a Christian pop album. Trust me, play that song out of context, and you might make yourself laugh. If that’s the low point, I’ll take it, because it features some cool harmony manipulations between Koenig and Rostam Batmangli. It might just be intended to sound like a sing along with God (just kidding). “Finger Back” starts the descent back to the pessimistic and distrustful, recounting historical atrocities, but moving at a pace so fast we hardly have time to digest a thought before we’re on to a new one. “I don’t wanna live like this/but I don’t wanna die,” he drops toward the final quarter of the album. “Ya Hey” serves as a heated conversation and ultimately disconnect with a deity. The gloom is infectious, however, because 1. It still comes off as wistfully hopeful and 2. the song is fucking great. It’s without question one of the musical highlights on the album (along with “Hunt” & “Step”). “Hudson” takes a spooky minor turn sonically and more aggressively indicts he who needn’t be named, with Koenig insistant on a name change and total disassociation. “Young Lion” punctuates it all with the simple phrase “You take your time young Lion”, symbolizing some newfound wisdom. For a band that’s sometimes guilty of becoming too wordy, this was a nice way to stamp their obvious progression. The message resonates intensely because faith is something a good portion of us struggle with. For those of us in the middle, it can be something that is embraced or dropped at a moment’s notice, and Vampires of The Modern City skillfully narrates the rocky trajectory.