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Review: Vampire Weekend, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

Vampire Weekend / Photo by Matt Ellis
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 14, 2013
Label: XL

Halfway through Vampire Weekend’s third album, on a hushed, mysterious song called “Hannah Hunt,” someone takes a lonely walk from an off-season beach house into town to buy kindling while his partner stays behind and tears up a copy of the New York Times, section by section. Week in Review. Arts & Leisure. Stories of real-estate woe facing the same class of well-bred Americans that Vampire Weekend have always skeptically counted themselves a part of: confetti on a cold, cold floor.

Whether Hannah tears up the paper for the fire, or because she’s angry about something she doesn’t yet know how to express, is irrelevant: Since when do people in Vampire Weekend songs rip up anything with their bare hands? And who in this band actually knows how to build a fire? In 2008, one of Ezra Koenig’s protagonists might have done the same job with scissors, sparing Sunday Styles.

Yes, the members of Vampire Weekend are approaching 30: men of the world leaving behind the mania of youth for the bittersweetness of everything that comes after. They continue to appear friendly and urbane. They continue to make great use of harpsichords. And people will probably continue to hate them with an elemental passion because they are friendly, urbane young men who make great use of harpsichords. But their sound is thicker now, and moodier too, with streaks of gray in a palette that was once all neon and pastel.

If at times the band has been too smart for their own good, they’ve become good enough to know when to not act so smart. Modern Vampires of the City invokes 19th-century British literature, 20th-century Californian rap, falafel, Jamaican patois, pan flutes, rent control, and the Bible. But it also contains simple, direct lines like “Hold me in your everlasting arms” and “Don’t wait,” set to anthem-sized songs that will be heard in bars, commercials, and as bumper music for sports that Vampire Weekend may not know how to play.

Rostam Batmanglij’s arrangements remain a geek’s dream. Like light through a prism, they can be split into hundreds of clever references. Rockabilly, dub, Lennon-esque ballads, Gospel, Celtic military music, the meticulously processed pop of Fleetwood Mac, and the ambience of field recordings: It’s there for whoever wants to hear it. Ditto Koenig’s lyrics. On the thumping, Springsteen-like “Unbelievers,” an allusion to the Book of Corinthians doubles as a romantic pledge: “Girl, you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train.” Like art, Vampires is dense; like pop, it seems to float in effortlessly from some place you’re sure you’ve been, but by some trick of déjà vu eludes your conscious brain.

Their first two albums, 2008’s Vampire Weekend and 2010’s Contra, had a tight style influenced by South African music and European new wave like the English Beat and Orange Juice — bands that took punk’s narrow, buttoned-up approach and applied it to a blend of white pop and black soul. Here, they turn home. “Step” has the wide-open, stoned feeling of a Tom Petty song; the end of “Hannah Hunt” is almost country. At times, they approach the grandeur of indie-rock comfort food like the National or Arcade Fire, and in so doing make those bands sound as monochromatic as Metallica.

Their sound is still rooted in exaggeration. On ballads like “Hannah Hunt” and “Obvious Bicycle,” they strip off their embroidered dog sweaters and show us the hearts that beat tenderly underneath. When they’re happy and they know it, they clap their hands until they bleed. Even the most neutral emotions on Vampires are rendered with surreal extremity. But what once sounded like a wild sprint now sounds like a long, confident stride. The 32nd-note string-section runs, the diddly little guitar bits that proved beyond reasonable doubt that they had heard exciting music from foreign countries, the hyper-referential lyrics about Lil Jon and kwassa kwassa and kefir and sans-serif fonts all just preening like kittens in a shelter to show you how clever and adorbs they were: gone.

“Back back, way back, I used to front like Angkor Wat,” Koenig sings on “Step.” This is the closest he comes to an apology. Now he sticks to old saws like God and home. But “God” has as at least as many definitions as there are people to define it, and when Vampires drops proper nouns — Rastafarianism, the Dome of the Rock, the sound of that distant DJ transitioning from Desmond Dekker to the Rolling Stones in a way that shines a light into someone’s worried soul — it’s only to suggest that all these small roads lead to the same big place.

The characters on Vampires live life in ambiguity. At their best, they hope. At their worst, they doubt. Everything in between is some variation on nostalgia or regret. “Want a little warmth,” Koenig sings on “Unbelievers,” “But who’s gonna save a little warmth for me?” Later, on “Ya Hey,” he swoons to the distant sounds of a festival DJ whose life has taken some unfortunate turns. “I think in your heart that you see the mistake,” he sings. “But you let it go.” With the exception of “Diane Young,” who sets fire to a Saab, the craziest thing anybody does here is give themselves the chance to move on.

Still, most Coachella revelers don’t want to hear about God or home or what it feels like to have a passive-aggressive conversation with your significant other in a rented cottage. This is where melody comes in handy. Any ambiguity in Koenig’s lyrics is obliterated by the clarity of the music. If Vampire Weekend ever resembled Paul Simon, it’s now: Few other artists can get mothers and daughters alike to clap along so happily to songs so sad. The grand irony here — because of course Vampire Weekend relish in grand irony — is that the album’s most triumphant songs are its least conclusive. “Wisdom’s a gift but you trade it for youth,” Koenig sings on “Step.” “Age is an honor, but it’s still not the truth.” Damn. But what is wisdom? What is truth? If you believe them, it has something to do with climbing to the top of the tallest mountain and bellowing that you have no idea.

Yes, they’re skeptics. But they’re also optimists. And the feeling that comes through clearest on Vampires is one of perseverance. Over the vast, march-like opening to “Ya Hey,” Koenig sings, “Oh, sweet thing, Zion doesn’t love you / Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything.” His voice is almost consoling: the lap for a drunken friend’s head as they fall asleep, the hand that rocks the cradle when the baby wakes from a nightmare.

So how does this happen, you wonder? How does a human being feel so unappreciated by the world around them yet somehow manage to wake up every day feeling like a Gospel choir being pumped out of a very powerful synthesizer? How do they wake up and still feel like the world is a beautiful place to be? Modern Vampires of the City doesn’t posit an answer because there isn’t one. We’re just a resilient bunch. Instead, the band observes. Faced with a mystery as deep as the human spirit, what else could they do?