Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Only God Was Above Us

[Columbia; 2024]

If the title “Ice Cream Piano” – the opening track to Vampire Weekend’s outstanding new album Only God Was Above Us – reads like a joke, you’d be correct. Or at the very least, it’s a slight distortion; a wordplay that feels like a master key into the band’s approach to history writ large as well as their own. They recognize that history is an unreliable narrator, that the past is prone to idealization and sanitization, and what survives is left in part up to luck. History is, in other words, open to interpretation: we see and hear what we want.

But what Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio and Chris Tomson do have control over is their legacy: “In dreams, I scream piano,” Koenig declares in the opener’s chorus. On the first pass, he sings the line with a potent urgency over a succession of piston-fast keys and drum strikes that are soon joined by leaping strings. It’s a tight yet glorious fanfare that calls back to their earliest work: think “Mansard Roof” and “Walcott”. But rather than cut this opener at its climax, the arrangements fall off a cliff, leaving Koenig and his piano to contemplate the chorus again:

“In dreams, I scream piano”
I softly reach the high note
The world don’t recognize
A singer who won’t sing”

The lesson here is obvious: dreams alone don’t do shit. Make your voice heard while you can. Vampire Weekend already know this; since the late aughts, they’ve staked out a territory that’s fostered allegiant fans and dismissive haters, doubling down on their approach when they want (Contra), imbuing said approach with an elevated awareness (Modern Vampires of the City), and indulging in creative left-turns (Father of the Bride). Now, on Only God Was Above Us, the band seem focused on a singular mission: to deliver a rich, imaginative work that demands our attention, one that pushes the expectations of listeners as well as themselves. The question is: do they succeed?

The answer is a resounding, unequivocal yes: Only God Was Above Us feels in many ways the kind of album we always knew the band had in them to make. Remember the choir-backed “Ya Hey”? Let’s interject this song’s structure with trippy beats and give the choir’s production an added hauntedness, as done on “Mary Boone”. Let’s end “Ice Cream Piano” on a slab of disjointed, unresolved piano keys. Let’s rectify this with a click that glides perfectly into “Classical”’s orchestral swell that feeds the band’s jubilant inclinations through the lens of classic Hollywood cinema. Why not end the dizzying dance of “Connect” with a deadpan upright bass slap?

Only God Was Above Us puts to bed any inkling that the departure of founding member Rostam Batmanglij marked the end of the band’s creative excellence (though he does get writing and producing credit on “The Surfer”). Indeed, Will Canzoneri’s orchestral arrangements provide many of the album’s highlights: the slow, purposeful climax of the early single “Capricorn” offered only a glimpse into his ideas. Koenig’s piano chops are often front and center, jangling aside Henry Solomon’s shining sax on “Classical” and offering a temporary solace among the existentialism of “Gen X Cops”. They provide a whimsical flourish to “Capricorn” and drip like a leaky faucet over the lo-fi beat of fever dream “The Surfer”.

These elements all come together on “Connect”, one of the best songs that the band have ever recorded. In true form, Koenig ties innocuous observations to potent memories, leading to an existential questioning of belonging (yes, acid may be playing a role). The plucky piano keys and bass rhythms give “Connect” an irresistible energy, playing and building off each other, culminating in a sweeping orchestral descent that’s arguably the album’s most satisfying moment.

In many ways, Only God Was Above Us seems like the proper follow-up to the band’s 2013 masterpiece Modern Vampires Of The City. But that would overlook the influence of Father of the Bride; that album was loose and imperfect, but also unafraid in its exploration of previously untouched genres (the country-tinged duets with Danielle Haim), loopy experimentations (“Sympathy”), and whimsical asides (“Sunflower” with Steve Lacy). That influence is most explicit here in “Pravda”, where the droopy guitar lines and Koenig’s vocal melody seem plucked right from Father of the Bride. But everywhere, an unquenchable enthusiasm comes through.

Koenig wrote the majority of the album’s lyrics in 2019 and 2020. Yet these 10 songs were undeniably fed through these last five years, a half decade that’s had the stability of a structure built on sand. It’s impossible not to hear the wailing of “Gen X Cops” and not be reminded of recent social movements. Koenig questions the motives of authority whenever possible: “Who builds the future / Do they care why?” he ponders on “Capricorn”. “The U.S. Army won the war / The meaning died in metaphor,” he laments on closer “Hope”.

The album is proclaimed to be a tribute to 20th century New York City, a timeframe broad enough to pack in references of a disgraced art dealer, Penn Station, and Grant’s Tomb. Yet these references aren’t contrived; they serve the album’s dreamlike approach to history, one that doesn’t call back a particular time so much as conjure up the feelings that come from thinking of the past.

Only God Was Above Us’s production also supports this reading: there’s a dustiness over these songs you could blow off. The piano loop on the latter half of “Connect” jumps like a stuck record needle. Yet other touches – the warbling over that same piano loop – also feel modern, experimental, and remarkably appropriate: Animal Collective would be proud. The chosen cover art further invites this interpretation. Yes, it’s composed of photos taken by Steven Siegel in 1988, of a New Jersey subway graveyard. Yet for those above a certain age, the sight of a New York paper headline might recall another nightmarish event (and the one that truly pushed us into the 21st century). Many of us might have the recent high-profile Boeing incidents on our minds when buying a plane ticket. 

Album closer “Hope” feels like the most direct statement to the listener. Structurally, the song itself is the most straightforward on the album—the rolling percussion and lullaby piano hook feel surprisingly appropriate following some of the most demanding music they’ve made. But slowly the song builds, horns underscore later verses, and a weighty yet playful interlude enters halfway through. Koenig moves through anecdotes and disasters – a half-burnt Phoenix, an abandoned embassy – that might mean a little something different to everyone. Importantly, every verse ends with the line “I hope you let it go.” The word “hope” is key; Vampire Weekend know that asking is too much, and wishing is too desperate. They know that people will still pick the past apart only to see what they want. 

But, they press on anyway. They still scream piano.