What does Vampire Weekend’s third album sound like?
It sounds like every other Vampire Weekend album…but better.
Yes, the genre name implies a silly and unavoidable pretentiousness, but for the first time in their career and out of absolutely nowhere, Vampire Weekend make the leap from (generic) indie pop to (great) art pop. If you weren’t a big fan of their previous work because it sounded too much like Paul Simon without the great melodies or Peter Gabriel without the danger, then you’ve got no ammo against this one. One of the broader criticisms I can offer against Contra – terrible cover aside, which they ran into a bit of a legal pickle with anyway – was that its tracks were all interchangeable with those in their debut. That, in the two years between those points, they had learned nothing (well, Ezra Koenig improved his diction with a few fancy words like “horchata” and “balaclava”). Unfortunately, staying in the same place is the opposite of progress, which is, inherently a good thing, by-the-by…for the most part, anyway. Consult your local wikipedia on evolution for more details.
You’ll hear the differences in sound between Modern Vampires of the City and pre-mature Vampire Weekend as soon as the squelchy electronic percussion of “Obvious Bicycle” come in (it could very well be coming from a rust-covered bicycle pedal being stepped on). And that’s without mentioning the other stuff that “Obvious Bicycle” offers; the gospel tinge in the wordless female backing vocals (at the 2:50 mark) or the repeating male backing vocals for the final instance of the chorus (at the 3:22 mark) or the sprinkled piano. As the title of the album suggests, they’re no longer looking backwards to try and recreate Graceland for a generation who was born afterGraceland and who had never heard Graceland and who have no intention of hearing Graceland. In other words, Vampire Weekend pulled off their own Halcyon Digest in a year where the creators of Halcyon Digest couldn’t even do the same.
One of the few criticisms I can offer against either of the preceding Vampire Weekend albums was their lyrical gobbledigook (a fun way of saying garbage, really); it’s been five years and I’ve yet to receive any sort of empirical evidence that would suggest Lil Jon is a truthful fellow. Meanwhile, meaningless stuff like “Me and my cousins and you and your cousins! / I can feel it coming!” found its way – repeatedly – onto an album named Contra, a title that referenced the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries. But it didn’t matter, really, because Vampire Weekend was asking you to listen to the grooves and make out with the ladies who appreciate a man who appreciates the finesse of the sweater-suit lovechild, the cardigan. Modern Vampires of the City takes the lyrical maturity that they had always briefly hinted at one or two times per album, and stretches it over the course of an album without forgetting that they’re good at music.
Lead single “Diane Young” is a good example of both my points. Firstly, the way they pitch-shift Ezra Koenig’s voice and then arpeggiate it in the chorus is something we haven’t heard from the band before. Without that nifty trick, it would’ve sounded like any other fast-paced track by Vampire Weekend (the riff at the 1:23 mark sounds like it came straight out of “Cousins”). Elsewhere, you haven’t heard something as smart as the pun in the title, “If Diane/dying young won’t change your mind” to a line like, “you got the luck of a Kennedy,” coming out of Ezra Koenig’s lips anywhere else before this point in time. In addition to “Diane Young,” Koenig appears to enjoy creating fictional characters to get his points across as on “Hannah Hunt” or “Hudson”; all while tackling bigger themes of disillusionment against religion as on “Everlasting Arms” (“Could I’ve been made to serve a master? / Well I’m never going to understand, never understand”) and “Ya Hey,” or material goods or their own city as on “Hannah Hunt” (“Though we live on the US dollar / You and me, we got our own sense of time”; “Hannah tore the New York Times up into pieces”). The album cover itself – their best so far – is a shot of the smoggiest day of New York City, when air pollution had killed 169 people. Not exactly the Radio City-aping “We are at a party!” of Vampire Weekend or “This is what a girl looks like! (when she’s having her picture being used unknowingly as the cover to our album) of Contra, is it?
Then, there’s the actual music: indelible hooks as expected (ie. the punch-y “Unbelievers” or “Step” if you’re not a fan of Ezra Koenig’s manipulated vocals on “Diane Young” or “Ya Hey”). Elsewhere, with a great amount of self-awareness and a tiny amount of Parmesan, the second instance of “I want to know – does it bother you? / The low click of a ticking clock” is followed by the low click of a ticking clock in “Don’t Lie!” – love it! Meanwhile, instruments are perfectly mixed: the sharp drums of “Step” to the bass bubbles of “Ya Hey.” But broadly speaking, the best part of Modern Vampires of the City is the constant dynamic shifts. Normally, I rail against these, because of how tired I am of the “let’s make our choruses pop out by making them louder” route that a lot of bands take, but here, they’re rarely expected and never sound awkward. And I’m not just talking about “Everlasting Arms” dying down for its chorus or “Ya Hey” dying down for a Rolling Stones-referencing spoken word bit: the best example is on “Hannah Hunt,” where these gorgeous electronic sweeps make it sound like you’re on a beach before turning into a danceable number with Ezra Koenig shouting “IF I CAN’T TRUST YOU, THEN DAMNIT HANNAH” over the din. In other words, Vampire Weekend pulled off their own Funeral in a year where the creators of Funeral couldn’t even do the same.
Sure, there are missteps. “Finger Back” is way too structurally similar to Sleater-Kinney’s “One Beat” and constantly reminds me of a better song (seriously, compare them); “Worship You” is too quirky to be anything else; “Hudson” sounds like a musical rehash of “Obvious Bicycle.” Meanwhile, “Young Lion” is a needless closer. It starts well enough at first, the first thirty seconds suggests a proper closer, repeating the sprinkled piano motif found everywhere else in the album (ie. “Obvious Bicycle”). Suddenly, Koenig lets Rostam Batmanglij sing, who does his best to emulate Justin Vernon, but he’s about 5 notes short and he doesn’t have the faux-soul or facial hair to pull it off. Moreover, if I wanted to hear Bon Iver, I’d listen to a Bon Iver album (you hear that, Colin Stetson?).
But all of these cases can easily be overlooked because this is the best album of 2013 (though sometimes I think that a certain mixtape has a chance – ahem – of beating it).