Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend MVOTC
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by ADAM OFFITZER

“I’ve had dreams of Boston all of my life,” Ezra Koenig sang in “Ladies of Cambridge,” the B-side to Vampire Weekend’s first single in 2007. Six years later, he seems to be perfectly content with New York.

Manhattan has dominated the press roll-out for Modern Vampires of the City. The album cover makes it fairly clear what city these modern vampires roam in. The lyrics video for “Step” treats New York as the subject of a glamorous photo shoot, artfully capturing the urban beauty of the city that never sleeps. The press pictures accompanying the band’s NPR and New York Times profiles show the band perched on rooftops, overlooking the borough they proudly represent.

It was only fitting, then, that the band’s highest-profile debut of their new material would come in the form of a homecoming show. Playing the Roseland Ballroom on West 52nd St. and streaming live to a worldwide audience, the quartet performed six new tracks, easily interspersing them with old classics and crowd favorites. After a rousing rendition of “A-Punk,” actor Steve Buscemi joined them onstage. “I’m proud of these guys,” he said matter-of-factly into the microphone. “They’ve come a long way.”

Buscemi’s line was meant as a meta-joke, referencing a series of videos where he serves as the band’s naïve, out-of-touch manager. But, in typical Vampire Weekend fashion, the joking words came with a deeper meaning. After “A-Punk,” the band transitioned into “Ya Hey” from Modern Vampires, another track with a wordless sing-along at its center. But unlike the absurdly catchy, frivolous “ay-ay-ays” of “A-Punk,” the “ya-heys” of “Ya Hey” are filled with meaning, as they are meant to signify “Yaweh,” and the song itself, a brilliant stomp-along anthem, is framed as a conversation with God. They’ve come a long way, indeed.

Modern Vampires of the City represents yet another giant leap forward for the band, sonically, musically and thematically. Loaded with organs, ghostly choirs and the pervasive chords of an upright piano; filled with references to age, religion, and death, it carries the aural grandeur and emotional heft you might expect from an Arcade Fire album. “In the past, I think a lot of our songs have had detours, surreal moments, vignettes,” Koenig recently told the New York Times. “I feel like every song on this album has a specific purpose.”

The mission statement is made right from the get-go on the remarkable opening track, “Obvious Bicycle.” Guided by peaceful, gospel-tinged piano keys, “Bicycle” is nothing short of gorgeous. Over spacious, majestic chords and accompanied by an electronic church choir, Koenig takes his voice to some powerful, haunting places. “You oughtta spare your face the razor,” he says, “because no one’s gonna spare the time for you.” It’s sad, depressing even, but the chorus brims with optimism and hope. “Listen,” he sings before lifting his voice in such a jarring fashion that you question if he’s singing in tune, before you realize he’s not only in tune, but also in full command. “Don’t wait.”

Lyrically, this album covers the heavy stuff – age, time, life, death and religion. As a consequence, it will undeniably be pinned as the “mature” Vampire Weekend album, in which the band “grows up.” It’s hard to argue with these inevitable points – MVOTC seems intentionally crafted to invite them. But we can’t forget that this band has always had a knack for balancing emotion with light-heartedness, dating all the way back to the distant longing of “Campus” and reflective nostalgia of “M79” on their debut. Koenig recently told Pitchfork that “the perfect tone is halfway between deeply serious and totally fucking around,” and by those standards, the band’s tone has been perfect for three albums and counting.

“Perfect” is an interesting word to use when describing the music of Vampire Weekend. The band is known for its relentless perfectionism – this album’s path has been long and winding, with songs recorded, scrapped, then re-recorded and endlessly tweaked over a three-year period. It comes as no surprise to learn that Koenig and the band’s keyboardist Rostam Batmangli had a series of “quality control” meetings four days a week, adding the production flourishes that Batmangli has become known for.

For a critic, “perfect” is a relatively untouchable word. No form of art can be definitively labeled as perfect, because art – and music in particular – is experienced on a personal level. Still, it’s hard to deny that the tight harmonies of “Unbelievers,” the wobbly staccato organs of “Finger Back,” and the pulsating strings of “Don’t Lie” are anything but moments of pop-rock perfection. Nothing feels out-of-place or out-of-sync, everything clicks together in flourishes of simple brilliance.

Take for example, how the twangy, rambling guitar and rapid-fire vocals that kick off the album’s ninth track, “Worship You,” sound like a hyperactive version of Paul McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” But the musical similarities end when the song breaks from its straightforward folk into an epic echo chamber of a chorus and a riveting finale, driven by a frenetic percussion breakdown.

Vampire Weekend has always excelled at building these powerful, epic bridges towards the end of their songs (see “Walcott”), and on MVOTC they’ve continued to hone that craft. On “Diane Young,” “Ya Hey” and so many others, a sense of urgency takes hold at the song’s conclusion, with Koenig’s voice rising an octave and an elevated variation on the song’s particular instrumentation shifting the musical dynamic, carrying the listener through to the end. It happens throughout the album, on virtually every track, but nothing touches the jaw-dropping 2:42-3:18 span of “Hannah Hunt.”

“Hunt” functions as the album’s centerpiece. Starting with another series of mesmerizing, delicate piano chords, it begins as a quiet waltz with a simple melody and calming aura. It builds casually for two and a half minutes, with Koenig and Batmangli harmonizing together: “Though we live on the US dollar, you and me, we got our own sense of time.” Then the song takes a thrilling turn. A crash of drums ushers in a new piano riff, and a sonic landscape of synthesizers and guitars is established, as Koenig sings over it all with a wild, unexpected howl: “If I can’t trust you, then dammit, Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.”

While “Hunt” may not be the album’s definitive track (that honor goes to the supremely elegant “Step”), this transition is undeniably its definitive moment, a cathartic burst of energy and passion that serves as a direct rebuke to anyone still foolish enough to think of Vampire Weekend as an insignificant band that’s all style and no substance, purely fueled by undeserved hype.

Remember, there was a time when this was a common critique. A vocal chorus of pretentious music fans and bloggers viewed Vampire Weekend as just another a buzz band, created by the internet, that couldn’t and wouldn’t last. This 30-second span of “Hannah Hunt,” and Modern Vampires of the City as a whole, should end that bogus critique for good. At this point, if you’re still hating on this band, you’re either trolling or just not listening. So listen. Don’t wait. [A]

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