Album Review: Modern Vampires of the City

Five years ago, an upstart band from New York City named Vampire Weekend released “A-Punk,” their biggest single to date. Clocking in at just over two minutes, the song centered around an African guitar, an arthritis-inducing bassline, and obscure hometown references. The band tied pastel sweaters around their shoulders in the video, accenting their beautifully side-parted hair which might as well have been blowing in the wind bouncing off the bow of their thirty foot yacht. Word spread quickly that these guys were not ironic garage punks, but well-off Ivy Leaguers. Many were incensed. IF underprivileged and hypermotivated are supposed to dominate art circles, then they most certainly must record all the rock ‘n roll. But here was Vampire Weekend, certainly not the first band composed entirely of yuppies, but probably the first with as much artistic credibility as the saddest of sob story musicians. It was easy to hate Vampire Weekend, until one dropped the needle on their self-titled debut album. Ambivalence was then the norm.

The band released their second album Contra two years later. Parts of the first album remained: African rhythms, homages to the more exclusive parts of their beloved New York, and confusing lyrics, though it did enough to establish themselves as talented and motivated. If you listened to their first two albums (and if you are white, the chances are good that you have), Vampire Weekend earned your respect for being revolutionary in a genre that has wallowed in power chords for the last thirty years. That may not have changed whether you liked them or not (Vampire Weekend probably has more haters than Nickelback), but it set the table for their third release, Modern Vampires of the City. 

Remember a paragraph ago when I asked you if you listened to their first two albums? I didn’t really ask you, but you understand the idea. Recall the “question.” If your answer was “yes,” recall how their first two albums sounded. Got it? Good. Now forget them. They’re irrelevant. Modern Vampires of the City sounds nothing like their two very good albums. It’s actually a lot better.

“Diane Young,” the album’s first single, ditches their trademark jangle and replaces it with perfectly executed basic pop. It steps away from the anthemic arena rock dominating Clear Channel and breathes life into the Paul Simon school of making people happy with a timeless ditty. They take a similar approach to “Unbelievers,” a McCartney perfect workshop in songwriting that never explodes with the energy it absorbs. The exuberant hydra of “Everlasting Arms,” “Finger Back,” and “Worship You” projects giggly smiles in a way only the quirky Ezra Koenig can fashion. To top it all off, “Young Lion” provides a breathless coda, taking beautiful woodland harmonies and repurposing them for urban usage. The album cover is grey, but the music inside is as colorful as a tinted taxi cab reflecting sunlight into a pothole puddle.

Koenig, though as peppy as any other leading man, isn’t afraid to tackle difficult topics. Every old rock critic is currently going apeshit over “Step’s” seminal line: “wisdom’s a gift/but you’d trade it for youth/age is a virtue/but it’s still not the truth.” I prefer his pragmatic pessimism on the opener “Obvious Bicycle”: “you oughta spare your face the razor/’cause no one’s going to spare the time for you/why don’t you spare the world a traitor/take your wager back and leave before you lose.” It’s certainly a lot easier to parse through than Contra’s opening track “Horchata,” in which Koenig sings, “In December drinking horchata/I look psychotic in a balaclava.” Koenig’s lyricism is the band’s greatest improvement; we knew they could play, but now we know they can write.

And speaking of growth, the band approaches the end of the project with “Hudson,” their first recognizably dark song. Half their body of work should depress the average listener with enough analysis, but until “Hudson” the melodies had been so undeniably catchy that it was easy to ignore the difficult realities in favor of dance. “Hudson” throws the album a bit off kilter, but it’s hardly a misstep, instead culminating in the album’s inevitable death before the resurrection of “Young Lion.” On “Hudson,” the boys sound like the maturest twentysomethings in New York.

Before “Hudson,” however, we get “Ya Hey,” which should be the band’s proudest accomplishment to date. As the drumbeat and paired strings slowly advance, Koenig lays out the ugly pressures of life for all to bear witness, all while playing with the name of the best pop song of the last twenty years. “Ya Hey” demonstrates the confident undertaking of an impossible task, and the angelic choir does as much as the vinyl-scratching hook in supporting the band with its admirable endeavor. It ends a five song barage, from “Hannah Hunt” on, that left me in a state of auditory paralysis. “Ya Hey” deserves a crown and gobs of replay. Heck, the entire album deserves the same.

Canada boasts Arcade Fire. England claims Radiohead. Iceland has Sigur Ros. Ireland pushes My Bloody Valentine. New Zealand has Flight of the Conchords, I guess. France flosses Daft Punk. Each is the biggest band in their country and a worthy nomination for best english-speaking band in the world. Curiously, the United States hasn’t claimed their own nomination in a while. Twenty years ago, Nirvana was the U.S.’s last real contender, but by that time Ireland’s U2 already had a firm grip on the title. Not having a house band is a curious deficiency for a country whose music inspired everything else in the modern western canon, but Modern Vampires of the City may just give Vampire Weekend the international respect they deserve. They’re not the greatest band in the world (that still belongs to Radiohead and may just slip to Arcade Fire later this year), but they definitely have the world’s attention. They still may retain their haters, but after their third album and before everyone in the band enters their fourth decade of life, Vampire Weekend is nothing less than the best band in the United States.

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