Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Album Review: Vampire Weekend - "Modern Vampires of the City"

The first time I heard Vampire Weekend was, like many people, upon the release of their debut self-titled album back in 2008. I was working a dead end job, but at the point of my first listen, it was spring, and the music was perfectly uplifting: bright, upbeat, pop music with sentiment and heart. The songs revolved around subjects like college, Lil' Jon, and all things east coast, and these subjects can seem a little trivial. This doesn't mean that the album wasn't great, but the group had room to grow, likening themselves to schoolboys.

When Contra was released in 2010, I was eagerly anticipating its revealing. I can distinctly remember it being my birthday and driving through a typical January Wisconsin snow storm to get to a listening party for the album. The bar which held the event was empty, so I made quite the haul of giveaways. Contra was again, filled with spritely, sugar-coated pop songs, but the group took a step forward with the album, providing tracks like "Diplomat's Son" and "Taxi Cab" which opened up their world of songwriting, both lyrically and instrumentally. The album featured strings, electronic drums, and tempo changes galore; coupled with lead singer Ezra Koenig's lyrical growth which seemed to progressively be gaining a sense of self-awareness. The album also saw the rise of keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij as a major contributor in the band's song writing, and his presence on the songs was much more apparent.

Modern Vampires of the City, the latest release from Vampire Weekend only further propels the band as one of the smartest pop groups of our time, if not ever. While Contra took steps forward from what Vampire Weekend provided, Modern Vampires makes leaps and bounds.

The album opens with "Obvious Bicycle" a song which serves almost as a pep talk, for a man who seems to have lost hope in the world and the people it's filled with. Ezra preaches:
"So keep that list of who to thank in mind/ And don't forget the rich ones who were kind/ Oh, you oughta spare your face the razor/ Because no one's gonna spare the time for you/ Why don't you spare the world a traitor/ Take your wager back and leave before you lose"
The album fully opens up as "Unbelievers" begins. Rich with Americana, the song almost sounds like a Bruce Springsteen track, and despite the song's lyrics, the band states it is not an atheist anthem. Instead it serves as a love song for people lost within the haze of what the world expects from them, whether that is a belief system or not. The song provides a perfect encapsulation of the band's mentality with the album: the messages might be heavy, but the group still has a sense of humor.

"Step" is another fully realization of this mentality. On the surface the track feels heavy and weighed down by its lyrics, but in all actuality, it was inspired by a hip hop song by Souls of Mischief called "Step to my Girl", a song which I beg you to take a listen to. This flips the meaning of the song on its head, once initially seeming like it was about an actual girl, it turns more to an ode to music itself. The lyrics seemed like they come from an overprotective boyfriend, but rather explain the nature of music lovers in our generation. Think of the line "Maybe she's gone and I can't resurrect her/ The truth is she doesn't need me to protect her" not about a girl in Ezra's life, but instead about the music he holds so close to his heart. It'd be easy to get upset about the "homage" to Souls of Mischief, and the general stealing of the song's lead line, but calm down, this is a love song about love songs.

This is what is so amazing about this album. Listeners can take the music for what it's worth on face value, brilliant pop music with soul and actual thought behind it, or they can actually delve deeper into what the lyrics mean. Neither of these approaches is wrong, and neither is more correct than the other. But for the sake of the article, I want to keep peeling back the layers of a few of these tracks like we're watching an episode of Lost.

"Diane Young" is the name of a salon in NYC, which specializes in anti-aging remedies. The song touches on the 'Live Fast, Die Young' mentality that seems to be running rampant in today's society. Ezra has confessed to being a "name fetishist" and with this in mind, think of Diane Young as a play on 'Dying Young.' Another aspect of the song that I love, is not only how it seems to be a track meant for a car chase scene, but the pitch shifting (which appears frequently in MVotC) in it, which was at first alienating but with listen upon listen, the track thrives with this unique aspect held within it.

Songs like "Don't Lie" and "Hannah Hunt" both touch on similar themes, both about love and its incorporation with the fear of aging, or at least staying young. On "Don't Lie" Ezra speaks of a "ticking clock" and a "headstone right in front of you and everyone I know" but also touches on how prior loves mistreated him, begging the notion that life is short and that love can be shorter.

"Hannah Hunt" is an early favorite of mine, a song about being sad, plainly put. The track starts slow, focusing solely on a few piano keys and a simple, swirling bass line. While touching on similar themes as Ezra mentions "a man of faith" and life cycles (specifically through asimiles to plants), the track glistens as it picks up. The drums in the track are the first time you can really tell that the band focused on keeping them "warm" by recording them on analog tapes and then using samples to layer on top of portions of them. By the end of the song Ezra's voice is pitch-perfected to give the sound of him yelling, "If I can't trust you then damn it Hannah/ There's no future, there's no answer/ Though we live on the US dollar/ You and me we got our own sense of time"

Remember when every critic said that Vampire Weekend was just a Paul Simon "Graceland" Cover Band? Well these critics are going to have a heyday with "Everlasting Arms" another favorite of mine from Modern Vampires. And the critics who tear apart Ezra and company for focusing on the themes of love and death too much are going to really tear this one apart too. But that's why I love this track, the group is fully embracing all of this. Ezra sings on the second verse "I hummed the Dies Irae while you played the Hallelujah/ Leave me to my cell, leave me to my cell," the Dies Irae being a latin hymn written in the 13th century about the final day of judgement. I don't know why, but there's something so noble about all of this talk of love and religious judgment. I'm not religious... at all. But Ezra Koenig's lyrics about love and a relationship to God really hit home.

All of this comes to culmination on "Ya Hey" the band's second single (or third, if you include "Step") for Modern Vampires, about [one?] man's relationship with God. Ezra for the first time reveals some sort of vulnerability to religion, singing almost directly to a deity about the disconnect from modern society and said deity, and eventually reveling, "And I can't help but feel that I made some mistakes/ But I let it go" and later "And I think in your heart/ That you see the mistakes/ But you let it go/ Ya-hey, Ya-hey"

The final tracks on the album, "Hudson" and "Young Lion" are where the group throws a few curve balls, as MVotC finishes. Ezra states about "Hudson" that it is surely a departure from the adjectives that normally surround Vampire Weekend. Words like "fun" and "spring," et al, are curbed in the final songs on the album. "Hudson" is an almost haunting track, with the choir and strings backing Ezra's lyrics about inking a deal with a seemingly maleficent man and the eventual recognition of when one's time will end. However it's important for the group to be able to express these types of tones and emotions as they grow as a band; Vampire Weekend shouldn't be all bubblegum and cotton candy and spring and giddy.

To wrap this incredibly long and arduous and probably over-thinking of a pop album, it's important to focus on Vampire Weekend's mentality. They are incredibly proud of this album, with Rostam saying on Twitter that Modern Vampires of the City is his favorite album the group has made to date. Ezra came out and stated in an interview that "we don't want to disrespect the first two albums by dropping a shittier version of them" and that he was looking to create a "dark, epic, dancehall album." And although he admits the album didn't quite turn out like that, the moods and emotion held within Modern Vampires of the City are unlike anything you'd expect from the band that released Vampire Weekend.

Vampire Weekend has hit a stride unlike any other band on the market right now. Their sound is fresh and ripe and developing with every song and album they release. They will go down as one of the most intelligent and acute group of artists of our time. And Modern Vampires of the City only cements that.

Album Rating: 4.8/5

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