What exactly is the criterion that constitutes a song of the summer? Or an album of the summer? The churning waves of Internet critique on pop culture, pop music and what-used-to-be-considered-indie music has turned into a constant drone of Buzzfeedianism. The radio charts no longer have empirical power over cultural popularity. In 2013, the lines are blurring.
In this climate, and with an ivy-league-confidant straightening of their Oxford collars, Vampire Weekend wrote and, earlier this summer, released their most grown-up album to date in Modern Vampires of the City. To say that lead vocalist and guitarist Ezra Koenig has matured (it’s been almost 3 years since the release of their sophomore album Contra) is not, however, to immediately hand an indictment against the blasé and college naiveté that made them so likable in the first place. Instead, the New York-based quartet is as dynamic as ever, ironic harpsichord and all.
The first single from Modern Vampires of the City, titled “Step,” recalls both the old campus dormitory and the new apartment on Astor Place. Yes, clandestinely present and infectiously jumpy from the start, the harpsichord is back. In “Step,” Koenig voices lyrics with a cadence more akin to West Coast 90’s rap (fitting enough, the song samples ideas from an “Old Souls of Mischief” tune) — a Cambridge flow, if you will. But keeping with the rap theme, the lyrics themselves, from a purely poetic and story-telling standpoint, are filled with double entendres and geographical references. “While home in New York was champagne and disco,” he sings in reference to his hometown and the party scene he had grown so used to, “I was entombed with a boombox and Walkman.” The lyrics get heavy, but like rap, it’s played off as one brushstroke in a much more dynamic portrait of an entire story.
MVOTC never gets too wistful. Instead, just when listeners might lose touch, a patent groove swoops in for the save. The album as a whole remains sonically grounded thanks to bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Thompson, who frequently yet understandably are overshadowed by Koenig and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, the band’s primary writing duo. On MVOTC, Baio and Thompson sound like they never left Columbia’s campus, but instead gained tenure teaching a workshop titled “How to Make Any Song Everyone Will Want to Dance To.” The best parts, though, occur when everything is working together, mixing the old ingredients and the new. At the end of “Don’t Lie,” Koenig sings, “there’s a headstone right in front of you/and everyone I know.” It’s mildly drab stuff, right? But then, right before the song fades out, a short guitar solo plays. It sounds exactly like the same tone and guitar from the “Oxford Comma” solo. It’s a glimmer of hope and happiness, like a good thought that pulls you away from a train of more depressing ones.
If in the pop culture amalgamation Modern Vampires of the City struck less of a chord than its first or second album blame it on Koenig’s incisive lyrics which deal with themes of trivial youth, growing old and the struggle with religion. The album’s best moment is when Koenig’s voice cracks at the final chorus of the “Hannah Hunt” (their best and frankly most beautiful love song written to date, in my opinion just passing out “Bryn,” which I was always a sucker for). It’s heartbreaking. But maybe some people don’t want to listen to Vampire Weekend be heartbreaking. Considering their original appeal, I suppose I get that. But wasn’t also not giving “a fuck about an oxford comma” always kind of sad in a way?
That this wasn’t the “Album of the Summer” shouldn’t stop you from giving it a listen. Vampire Weekend doesn’t seem to mind those blurred lines of objective success. This summer they released a cover of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” When you listen to the cover it’s hard to think that these guys aren’t still having tons of fun.
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