Saturday, May 25, 2013

Vampire Weekend Downsize Their Energy, But Raise Bigger Questions On "Modern Vampires of the City"

Every band seems to go through their "mature" phase at some point.  It can last an album, a string of albums, or be an entire paradigm shift in the band's sound.  This is particularly common with bands who have a significant amount of hype surrounding them.  Maybe it's the pressure of maintaining that hype or that most of these bands are young and come up at a time where they're still sorting things out, but there seems to be this need to change things up and attempt to look inward.  That's admirable and all, but the problem is that most bands mistake turgid and bland songs for being "deep" and "profound."

Modern Vampires of the City is Vampire Weekend's swing at a mature album, and much like other band's attempts, I initially didn't like it.  What made Contra and their self-titled debut so special is the great sense of balance that they both had.  The band doesn't get enough credit for how well they play their instruments (especially Chris Tomsin, who may be the most underrated drummer in indie rock) and it was always interesting to hear how they constructed their songs, a mass of elements interlocking and unraveling with a careful meticulousness.  Most of their songs had a spiky sense of energy, so when something more sedate like "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" or "I Think Ur A Contra" came along, it was a nice palate cleanser.  For this latest album, they've shifted the balance a bit, which threw me off at first.  It seemed like such stripped-down songs were a waste of a band of their instrumental prowess.

As I began to digest the album more, it grew on me to the point that I now love it.  Sonically, Modern Vampires of the City has more to offer than its often minimalist sensibility initially suggests.  It's an album that proves that bare bones can be just as beautiful as busier arrangements.  Take "Step" for instance, a shimmering song ballasted by a simple but strong melody.  Despite its sparse nature, the album is still quite percussive, from the commanding and militant drums on the woozy "Hudson" to the swing of the lean "Everlasting Arms."  Many of the songs start out restrained and save the emotional catharsis for the end -- "Obvious Bicycle," "Don't Lie," and "Hannah Hunt" all feature gorgeous outros.  "Finger Back" is closest they come to the nervy energy of their old sound, but even that one ventures into new territory toward the end with a loopy, bubbling outro reminiscent of Animal Collective.  Vampire Weekend has always had a keen sense of humor and "Diane Young," with its heavy use of vocoder and a keyboard that sounds like a baritone sax, captures their light-hearted and playful spirit.

Lyrically though, "Diane Young" and the album as a whole is anything but playful.  There's always been an academic bent to his lyrics, but on Modern Vampires of the City, lead singer Ezra Koenig trades the wink and smirk in his references for wide-eyed speculation.  As a whole, the album is fascinated with aging and religious questioning.  This year, only Frightened Rabbit's Pedestrian Verse comes close to matching how thematically airtight this one is.  "Obvious Bicycle" starts things off with a hard look at growing up and from there the album just builds on its themes.  On "Don't Lie," Koenig sings "I want to know - does it bother you? / The low click of a ticking clock / There's a lifetime right in front of you."  The album is not focused on death, but the entire concept of time.  By the end of the song, the lyrics change to "there's a headstone right in front of you," as if there's too much and too little time all at once.  The apex occurs in "Step," a dense song about life, love, and the history of music.  It's full of references that span space and time -- Angkor Wat, Croeseus, Alameda, etc. -- and it's alot to take in for the first few listens.  However, Koenig also knows how to scale things back and keep it simple too.  One of the best songs on the album, "Hannah Hunt," is just about a relationship, but it's one of the most devastatingly beautiful depictions of the intensity and ephemeral nature of love that I've ever heard.

Almost every song takes on a questioning air, as if Koenig is trying make sense of a senseless world.  It's very difficult to make songs about religious skepticism that don't come off as smug, but Modern Vampires of the City manages to pull it off consistently.  On "Unbelievers," he ponders whether there's any room in the world for him if he doesn't believe in "the fate that half of the world has planned for me."  The album has a great arc when it comes to its relationship with God, especially in its closing moments.  There's a real sense of frustration in "Worship You," which talks about people's unflagging loyalty to God, despite his fickle demands.  At first, "Ya Hey" seems to follow the same disgruntled path, with lyrics like "through the fire and through flames / you don't even say your name / only 'I am that I am'."  However, it takes an interesting turn from the idea of "what's wrong with you, God?" to "what's wrong with us, God?" as Koenig sings about all of the human "tension and fear" that God forgives.  By the time "Young Lion" rolls around, the album attains a peace of mind that it had been searching for in the previous 11 songs.  After all of the rumination on life and religion and aging, the simple coda "you take your time, young lion" closes things out.

Around some circles of the internet, it's considered uncool to like Vampire Weekend.  Since the beginning, people have tried to take offense to a number of things about them: the subject matter of their lyrics, their perceived privileged upbringing, their appropriation of African music, etc.  Even though I've always liked them, I can see how somebody could listen to their first two albums and find them to be overly precious.  Modern Vampires of the City, however, is enough to convert any haters.  The band has basically gone from Graceland to So Beautiful or So What in the span of three albums, delivering a record that is a major growth, both in terms of sound and lyrical content.

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