Review: Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend, 2013
Vampire Weekend could have easily been a flash in the pan. Many of their contemporaries (MGMT, The Temper Trap) who found immediate success in indie spheres have had a difficult time capturing it again in subsequent releases. Vampire Weekend didn’t stray far from the formula with Contra; yes it built on the ideas presented on Vampire Weekend but it was still very much a sophomore album, low in ambition but high in idealism. And it worked. While Contra was mostly a re-hashing of their debut, it did play around with a fuller instrumentation and more confident vocals. Rather than trying to stray away from their past work, they embraced it and fortunately the results were stellar, especially since at the time of Contra’s release, we still hadn’t had any cheap Vampire Weekend imitators saturating the market. But then you reach a dilemma: You can’t make the same album three times in a row. With that idea in mind, the album that our favorite horchata sipping Brooklynites have created is far better than anything we could have prepared for. It’s rare than an album can build on its predecessors in every possible way, but as proof it can happen, I present Modern Vampires of the City.
Modern Vampires of the City, the Brooklyn prep boys third LP, gives the sense that it took the band all three of those years in-between releases to truly discover their sound. More than that, it’s the fullest realization of the bands potential; if the bar wasn’t set high before, it’s being set near the moon right now. We can begin with the music. Not only do we have a complete evolution sonically, but it’s a reinvention of what made their music great before. Vampire Weekend single handedly making baroque pop relevant again with their debut in 2007, and they don’t do anything to drastically change that here. In other words, we still have harpsichords and string sections, but the band no longer feels a necessity to rely souly on those instruments. Throw piano and synthesizers into the mix, as well as a cataclysm of various computer generated noises (what’s that at the end of “Worship You”?) on top of Ezra Koenig’s voice and seemingly the band has fashioned something that keeps the continuity of their past work in tact while still being brilliantly new.
But the real revelation is Koenig’s voice. Modern Vampires of the City makes you realize the work-in-progress brilliance of Koenig’s vocals on the previous two albums. Here they’re no longer a work in progress. Between mixed vocal pitches (“Diane Young”), spoken word interludes (“Finger Back”), ghostly whispers (“Hudson”) and good ‘old fashion Vampire Weekend branded pop (“Unbelievers”), Vampire Weekend seem to have finally realized that Koenig’s lyrics and vocal style are what holds the music together. We saw flashes of it on Contra (“Cousins” to be specific) but Modern Vampires of the City has aestheticized his voice in brilliant fashion.
Thirdly we have the lyrics. It’s here we might have the most growth. Yes, we still get random pieces of anecdotal vision scattered across all the songs, but there is a deep brilliance to the deeper meanings. My biggest issue with Vampire Weekend collectively prior to this album was their inability to slow it down and do something dark. Not only had they neglected to tackle anything less than springing on their first two albums, but when they did finally release something a bit more brooding (“Jonathan Low” off the third Twilight soundtrack), it was a colossal misfire. Musically they couldn’t find the right movement.
But with an overhauled sound, their music takes a deeper meaning. “Hudson” might be one of the more haunting tracks to come out in 2013, about suicide and death (the opening lyrics go “Hudson died in Hudson Bay, the water took its victim’s name. The river’s rise told Riverside to change their names again”) and is unlike any other track the band has put out. Even the opener, “Obvious Bicycle”, is an unconventional choice with its aimless beat and floating vocals. But the change in vision makes the album fit together quite nicely, even if it takes a dark introspective turn on the last two tracks. They’re no longer post-graduates making pop music, they’re men trying to find answers.“Step” deals with a fear of growing old, “Hannah Hunt” focuses on nostalgia and memory, and “Diane Young”, cleverly changed to a woman’s name when the original title was “Dying Young”, deals with just that. It’s tough to look back at “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” as anything more than a ridiculous performance of theatrics, or “Oxford Comma” as anything more than a clever tongue in-cheek commentary on, hello, the English language. Yet the play on words and fun disposition of the old tracks is continued here, to great success.
If you’ve at all talked to me about this LP, you know that I was lukewarm on the first single “Diane Young” but was enthused with its B-side “Step”. But a month after the fact “Diane Young” might be one of the most solid songs on the album, and that’s saying something. The reality is that this is still the catchy band you fell in love with (“Finger Back” should prove that point), they’re just approaching it differently. And I for one applaud them. There was a point when I had my doubts that they would endure…. but alas, I was wrong and the naysayers were right, and we all win. Grade: A