May 14, 2013 in Album Reviews
By Zachary Kaczmarek
It seems like almost a lifetime ago that Vampire Weekend burst onto the scene with their innovative and captivating style, though it was only a mere 5 years ago. At the time, fans were either frothing at the mouth with the bands blend of punk rock, classical, electronic, and African influences with their strange tribal drum patterns and guitar playing style, or repulsed because it was viewed as pretentious and snobbish. Lead man Ezra Koenig said in an interview with UK newspaper The Guardian recently that critics who were irritated with the bands image or sophisticated lyrical content, which has always been rich with cultural references to wealthy upper class society and other subjects that are not usually commonplace to the average music listener, made it seem like the band members “were rich idiots ripping off African music.” But since then they have become somewhat of a household name in their respective scene, and have shaken off any bland criticisms of being a fad that would soon fade into irrelevance. Modern Vampires of the City marks an unexpected turning point that strips away most of the influence from the previous works and attempts to start anew with a darker realist point of view that accompanies the band’s shift into a realm of their own.
When compared to the opening tracks on their self-titled album and Contra, “Obvious Bicycle” does not exactly have an instant hook factor, with a slow and balanced tempo on piano, and Koenig never employing his signature falsetto that made songs like “White Sky” so memorable. Only one track in and it feels like a record that was produced years down the road, reflecting on happier and more carefree days of the past. Much of the album takes on a similar stern tone, but succeeds in appearing mature and confident, not at all dull or lifeless. Koenig’s lyrics scream for resilience and some kind of clarification in a befuddling world, such as the one described in “Unbelievers”, singing “Got a little soul, the world is a cold, cold place to be/Want a little warmth, but who’s going to save a little warmth for me”, and in the rebellious chorus “Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train” which would have fit right in back in Bruce Springsteen’s day. The band has never been open to the idea of acknowledging any particular interpretation of their cryptic lyrics, but this time around the messages that Koenig’s brilliant songwriting convey are outlined to a certain extent leaving the listener with more clues than on the previous two efforts.
As the album progresses it eases into more infectious sounds, especially the classical piano track “Step”, which is based on classical composer Pachelbel’s, “Canon in D”, and is backed by a smooth thumping drum beat and a slight reverb over Koenig’s vocals. The song is also a key example of how some Vampire Weekend songs have buried messages, but yet the level of enjoyment is high regardless. It opens with the most memorable line on the album “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl”, which without any context makes no sense, but is actually an homage to the underground rap group Souls of Mischief and their song “Step to My Girl”, of which Koenig is a huge fan. He also writes the one of his most clever phrases to date, “I just ignore all the tales of a past life/stale conversation deserves but a bread knife”, and nothing says coming of age like the chorus line “The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out/What you on about?”
The back end of the album provides a well-timed change of pace with “Diane Young” a rock n roll glitch punk track that is very reminiscent of their song “Cousins”, and the track “Worship You”, a song that draws very much from a band like the Violent Femmes with a fast paced folk punk style. But the real crown jewel of the album, “Ya Hey”, provides the bands heaviest work lyrically, and the smoothest musical transitions they have constructed. The songs title is a clever homophone for Yahweh, the Hebrew term for God, and the subject matter relates to Koenig’s Jewish heritage and trying to define his beliefs as he gets older. The pre-chorus transition from light synthesizers to an eerie classical piano line, which is perfectly executed by guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, captures the general sentiment of the song as Koenig sings “In the dark of this place, theres the glow of your face/There’s the dust on the screen, of this broken machine/And I can’t help but feel that I’ve made some mistake, but I let it go.” The chorus, a reference to Moses conversation with God in the Old Testament, hammers in the final nail with the lines, “Through the fire and through the flames you won’t even say your name, only ‘I am that I am”, and an angelic chorus singing beneath Koenig. The lyrics encapsulate Koenig’s frustration with the sheer mystery of his creator and in his view, lack of a presence which he is unsatisfied with. Crafting a track like this leaves no doubt that the band now possesses a level of confidence to tackle their own personal demons through their songwriting, as most acts would not dare write such a monumental song, especially one that involves such large existential or religious themes.
As the album comes to a close, “Hudson” touches on an image of a bleak world in the form of New York and the Hudson River with very pessimistic opening lyrics “Hudson died in Hudson Bay, the water took its victims name.” It’s a very anticlimactic ending, but a fitting one, as Koenig sings over gloomy synthesizers and even a few industrial samples that are occasional thrown in. They did not exactly take the logical next step to follow up Contra, but end result is a complete effort that summarizes the bands short but coveted career thus far. The songs on Modern Vampires are the type that may require some research in an encyclopedia or on Google to completely understand, but on the other hand, musically there is so much to take in that full comprehension is not necessarily required to consider this record an instant classic, or to consider Vampire Weekend elite songwriters.