Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

[XL Recordings; 2013]

In recent interviews, Vampire Weekend singer and lead guitarist Ezra Koenig has made mention of the fact that he and the rest of the band purposefully went against their pop instincts during the recording of their third record Modern Vampires of the City — specifically that if a song felt too radio friendly, it had to be distorted in some way. And while the songs on this album do hint at a darker perspective from the band than either their debut or Contra alluded to, the band, possibly despite their best intentions, have still made some of the catchiest, most hook filled pop songs that you’re likely to come across this year. Even when the lyrics tend toward the murkier aspects of human nature and experience (generally amid indelible sing-a-long choruses), you can practically see the sardonic smirk plastered across Koenig’s face.

But where Contra succeeded in breaking down the layers of Vampire Weekend’s debut to their base pairs and developing even more brightly shaded melodies on top of ridiculously crisp pop production, Modern Vampires of the City feels thicker—more densely packed—and benefits from the occasional musical detour that the band indulges in from time to time. But make no mistake; this is pop music through and through. And Vampire Weekend have a preternatural ability to make their songs breathe through a timeless pop simplicity. The sounds may be all too recognizable from the past few years (or decades for that matter) but the band fits them together in unexpected and curiously affecting ways. Whether it’s Koenig’s way of getting underneath a melody—right to the heart of the notes—or the band’s syncopated rhythm section and effortless integration of the endless influences which have marked all their releases, Modern Vampires of the City finds the band in both familiar and unfamiliar territory, and it’s pure pleasure hearing them navigate these waters.

For me, there has always been two major ways of approaching any album from Vampire Weekend. You can appreciate the pop hooks and meticulous construction, disregarding any sort of socio-economic proselytizing, or you can pull apart every lyric until this “message” is scrawled in crayon on the sidewalk, made perfectly clear for all who care to stop and read it. And while the advocation of one approach over another should rightly be left to each listener, it’s not terribly difficult to understand how incredibly subjective this all is and how deftly the band manages to side-step any obvious inconsistencies between the pop-centric instrumentation and the darker themes of mortality, faith, and society’s questionable demands upon the individual. But this isn’t The Knife and so we have a ridiculous amount of sugary ear candy on which to hang these sometimes unexpectedly heady lyrical insights.

And the band wastes no time in exploring this juxtaposition of saccharine melodies and darker thematic material, as album opener “Obvious Bicycle” twists Koenig’s piercing lyrics (“no one’s gonna spare the time for you,” “it’s been twenty years and no one’s told the truth”) together with gorgeously lilting harmonies and a subdued sense of rhythmic interchange within the band to form a meticulous composite of modern pop music–and it also finds room to sample reggae icon Ras Michael. “Unbelievers” digs into matters of faith and devotion strung up against some of the jauntiest organ and piano runs I’ve heard since Garth Hudson poured out his heart in The Band, and even Koenig’s declaration that “girl, you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train,” does little to quell the joyous sense of ecstaticism into which the band so happily dives. “Step” cribs bits and pieces of its melody from Oakland rap group Souls of Mischief’s “Step To My Girl,” who themselves took it from Grover Washington, Jr’s cover of “Aubrey” originally written by 70’s lite-AM rockers Bread. You got that?—ok, good. Oh, and the harpsichord and organ atmospherics make this song seem destined to soundtrack some adorably humorous scene from the next Wes Anderson movie. Come on, you knew it was inevitable.

“Diane Young” plays around with the idea of…well, dying young—with Koenig’s voice pitched and twisted on the joyously melodic “baby, baby, baby” bridge to great effect. “Hannah Hunt,” one of the clear stand outs here, is in some ways a statement from the band of where they’ve been and where they plan on going next. Beginning with some slight hiss and background noise, the song eventually opens up with Batmanglij’s delicate piano and Baio’s subtle bass plucks intertwining with Koenig’s soft vocals recalling the detailed travels of a couple as they reach out from one coast to the other. It strives for and attains an understated balance between the less-than-idyllic lyrics (“If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah/ There’s no future/ There’s no answer”) and its grounding in breezy pop nomenclature.

Other tracks like “Finger Back” and “Hudson” hover above bleaker territory than we’ve come to expect from the band, while still maintaining a high level of pop polish. These tracks are wrapped up in images of burned-out cities and descriptions of historic acts of violence. Dark stuff for a band whose debut and sophomore albums felt more akin to the sunshine pop of the ’60s and the jangle pop of the mid-80’s than they did to the jagged rock of the early ’90s or even the more introspective indie pop of recent bands like Allo Darlin’ and Jens Lekman. Koenig’s hyperactive vocals twist around the shuffling gait of “Worship You,” and the band manages to make something memorable and remarkably original in what would have merely been a throwaway track from any other band. Even when what sounds like a distorted brass section joins the morass, the band never loses their footing and keeps pulling one idea after another from its apparently limitless bag of musical tricks.

Modern Vampires of the City is definitely a more mature album for the band, but really, what does that even mean for a band whose literate Afro-pop inspired zaniness has played such an integral role in each of their past records? They’ve certainly lost none of those qualities, and yet the album still feels as though it was written and recorded by artists who’ve grown by leaps and bounds in the interim between their last record and this one (which they have). For Vampire Weekend, this means that you block out all the backlash that occurred after the release of your last album and focus on expanding your already considerable pop expertise and refining the quality of your songwriting to an almost Van Dyke Parks level of shine. Koenig’s lyrics are as bracingly astute as ever and Rostam Batmanglij never fails to impress with his varied and creative arrangements; but to forget Chris Baio’s serpentine basslines and Chris Tomson’s insistent, though unobtrusive, percussion would do them a disservice, as they are just as necessary as either Koenig or Batmanglij. Vampire Weekend have gone from puckish indie rockers to a fully formed indie rock institution, full of the battered feelings and world weariness that often accompanies such a meteoric rise—though they still hang onto an almost naïve sense of pop wonder. Three albums in and Vampire Weekend are still climbing.