For a while there, it sounded like Ezra Koenig refused to grow up. When last we’d heard from our hero he’d been woken from a post-smoke nap by his best friend’s father, the diplomat, and his song titles still favored the cheeky “Ur” in place of the proper contraction. And indie-rock hounds (this one included) lapped it up! So long as Vampire Weekend kept peppering those African rhythms with clever allusions, there was no stopping the next five records from reaching the top of the Billboard 200.
But “Modern Vampires of the City” arrived in May, and from its gorgeous, eerie artwork it was clear that VW had their eyes set on something darker and deeper than the collegiate shenanigans that inspired their first two tries. And in a year when the vogue favored big, disruptive sounds and statement-making records (think The Knife’s “Shaking the Habitual” and Kanye West’s “Yeezus”) their subtle, cohesive gem shined with all the more distinction.
So how about a short list of things Vampire Weekend do better here than on their first two records? For starters, Ezra's voice (when it isn't being tinkered with) sounds huskier, more like a world-weary man than a quirky college student. VW's other main songwriter and studio whiz, Rostam Batmanglij (owner of my favorite name to type though I've never dared to say it aloud), sounds like he was hard at work on "Modern Vampires" too, imbuing its pianos and complicated backing vocal arrangements with a divine glow that seems to radiate off its subject matter.
It's tempting to point out the biblical stuff in "Ya Hey" or "Unbelievers" as the source of this record’s spiritual power but the real goods are in “Everlasting Arms” when Ezra draws a line in the sand between him and God with a simple “well I’m never gonna understand.” It’s a refreshing contrast to the moodiness of Sufjan Stevens and often dour David Bazan, and VW gets away with it without sounding petulant thanks to the breathy, reverential beauty that “Obvious Bicycle” sets as an overtone for the whole record.
Co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid deserves credit here too for screwing with a good-but-not-yet-great band’s sensibilities and otherwise daring them to do stuff nobody who actually sells a livable amount of records would ever dream of doing, like using vocals from bedroom demo recordings in the final cut of the first single (as on “Step”). And good luck finding anything in recent indie-rock more bonkers than “Diane Young,” a polyphonic rockabilly number complete with the year’s catchiest breakdown. “Bay-buh bay-buh bay-buh bay-buh…”
And then there’s “Hannah Hunt,” the record’s creaky centerpiece and clearest narrative. A road trip song and a breakup song rolled into one, it’s got VW’s most vivid uses of imagery and symbolism. If you don’t read the part about tearing up the New York Times to start a fire as a clever goodbye to old-guard media then maybe you haven’t been paying much attention to how America’s been changing lately.
But even amid crushing doubt and a “country in decline” (an apt simile that shows up in “Finger Back”) it’s Vampire Weekend’s effervescent optimism that buoys this thing both now and into the future. Between a job market flooded by college degrees, crushing national student debt and seismic shifts in class and income, there are few reasons for the average Millennial to look to the future and smile. “Modern Vampires of the City” gives me one.