One of the most interesting musical evolutions of the past five years was the evolution of Vampire Weekend. These Columbia friends came into the spotlight as a young fresh band that was as preppy as they were likeable. The band’s debut album took off in 2008, and for a whole year I read a bunch of Paul Simon comparisons to an album about upper-class east coast life (Oxford commas!) while hearing every other indie fan proclaiming how they discovered Vampire Weekend before anyone else. Vampire Weekend was undoubtedly fun to listen to, but it sounded more like a collection of singles rather than a legitimate album. I liked “A-Punk”, and so did the rest of the world, but I moved on.
But then in 2010 Contra happened, and I was blown away.
Contra is a great album, actually it’s a really great album, but the fact that it came from Vampire Weekend surprised many people. Though the album still had the quirky singles, the album as a whole worked wonders to win over both the mainstream and indie crowd, whom at the time were also proclaiming that Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the greatest album of our time (it might be, but another day). The songs were edgier, the lyrics more cryptic and less sunny, and the band sounded more…well more. It was a large step forward for the band without losing its playful essence that made them so likable in the first place.
Now when Vampire Weekend announced Modern Vampires of the City, I had high expectations. The band spoke of their new album as “dark”, which was strange because I couldn’t imagine a more serious Vampire Weekend, the same band who gave us this music video. But I was also excited, because a “darker” album (when done right) meant that a band was trying to grow artistically. I had no idea what to expect, but I was ready.
So does the album impress? Read on.
Dark – Gone are the songs about Oxford commas and horchatas. Vampire Weekend is no longer a quirky upstate New York band; they are now a quirky upstate New York band that has traded novelty for respect, which it almost did with Contra and now completely has with Vampires.
The album begins with “Obvious Bicycle”, an intro that doesn’t hint at the album’s darkness quite yet. The song feels like the album’s opening credits, which makes “Unbelievers” the first opening shots of the movie setting up Ezra Koenig’s tale of his “modern” New York, and he sounds apprehensive (“I’m not excited, but should I be?”). Then comes “Step”, which is the album’s best track, followed by “Diane Young”, the album’s most accessible and upbeat song and a great album single. But the happy electronic rockability in the former can’t hide the fact that when Ezra sings “Diane”, it sounds like “Dying”. This might be on purpose.
The rest of the album goes between songs that stand out immediately (“Hannah Hunt”, “Everlasting Arms”, “Ya Hey”) and songs that flow quickly into each other. All of Vampires‘s songs are contemplating bigger (and more ambiguous) themes on matters of God, life, and death. You never really know who the “Vampires” are, but maybe that’s the point.
I think this album is great, but I can see a lot of people not caring for this band’s newly found sense of vulnerability. Vampires is the band’s best album, though that doesn’t mean it’s their most fun or enjoyable. And really, why did most people start listening to them in the first place? Most of us (including me) never came to Vampire Weekend for artistic virtue, but rather for enjoyment. Vampires for the band is a step in the direction to become a better band, which ultimately is the right step, but will it cost them now with their large fan base? For the sake of artistic integrity, I sure hope not.
Black-And-White-Noir – Of the three Vampire Weekend albums, this one feels most like a Woody Allen movie. Or a Scorsese movie. Or any movie about New York City depicting its magnificence and cruelty, a city where you can be both within and without (was the Great Gatsby remake planned to be released at the same time of this album???). This is all probably coming from me staring at the gorgeous black and white album cover too long or from all the recent music videos that I’ve been watching on repeat. Regardless, if you’re looking at the lyrics Vampires is the band’s most “scripted” album, coming from a band that isn’t known for coherent lyrics. Even the songs sound black and white. “Hannah Hunt” sounds like it could be on the soundtrack to The Big Combo (ok probably not, but you get the idea).
Paul-Simon – Most people compared Vampire Weekend’s debut album to Paul Simon because their debut happened to sound a little bit like Graceland. But I’m going to make a new Paul Simon reference for a new Vampire Weekend: Vampires is the band’s most sophisticated and complete album, which Mr. Simon is also famous for in his non-African pop albums and with his buddy Garfunkel. Every piano note, every guitar pick, every harmony (and what harmonies!) sounds like the work of hard labor from a band who now cares more than ever about their songs. Again, listen to “Hannah Hunt”, which could be the prime example of how far Vampire Weekend has come from “A-Punk”.
Overall: Modern Vampires of the City is Vampire Weekend’s best album, though that doesn’t mean it’s their most fun or enjoyable. And really, why do we listen to Vampire Weekend in the first place? Vampires is for the critics and for those who have grown up along with these Columbia boys. And if you’re neither, well at least you still have “A-Punk” on your iTunes.
Essential: “Step”, “Diane Young”, “Everlasting Arms”, “Ya Hey”
Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber