Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
Vampire Weekend's discography plots a neatly linear evolution of musical aesthetics and lyrical themes. Each album is a logical thematic step beyond the last. This assessment is simplified by the fact that they've only released four albums in their 14-year history, but I still think it's notable. To be clear, this doesn't make their music any less interesting or superb; I'd submit that the band are architects of some of the most sophisticated pop of our day (sophisticated, some might say, to a fault). The music has evolved over those 14 years as a pop becoming ever more deliberate, meticulous and ambitious, while the lyrics have evolved in the sense that they're really just snapshots of whatever phase of life the band happen to be in at the time, as channeled predominantly by lyricist and lead singer Ezra Koenig.
So where does Modern Vampires of the City land in this analysis? Lyrically, it's a bit of an "East Coaster having a go at living in LA, grappling with the legacy of a religious upbringing, asking 'what's the deal with the world these days?'" kind of phase. Oh, and coming to grips with the reality of death. There's lots of talk of death on the album. It's even there in upbeat lead single "Diane Young" (say it again: "Diane... Young...") Musically, they're gotten into mature, measured pop cum "studio as instrument" territory. A defining quality of this album, for me, is the production of the percussion: it's got a deep yet warm quality to it, particularly on tracks like "Step" and "Don't Lie". The former was one of a pair of singles first released from the album (the flip side being "Diane Young"), and when I heard it I was pretty much hooked. The lyrics resonated with me and my "current existential state of affairs" as I recall so melodramatically describing at the time. There's all sorts of meaning encoded into Koenig's clever referential wordplay, and it feels risky to declare authoritative interpretations, but to me the song was a takedown of all the retro-obsessed, past-glorifying voices crowding pop culture, yet at once a delicate acknowledgement of his own insecurities and impressionability. "Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth" – how badly we want to disagree, but if by some sorcery we were given the chance...
The first half of the album's smart pop bangers and vivid lyrical evocations grab the most attention, and rightly so: tracks like the aforementioned "Step" and "Don't Lie", as well as "Hannah Hunt", are among the band's finest. (First-half tracks "Unbelievers" and "Diane Young" also achieved hit status, but they don't quite reach the same tier for me.) The second half cools down a bit, but with conscious, repeat listens its own nuanced observation and introspection are revealed. "Finger Back" is an enlivening stomper, an exasperated existential rant of pondering one's place in the world – a generally exhausted theme transformed positively electrifying in the hands of Koenig's artless, compelling poetry. The subject of the lyrics is often the self, but the self is considered as an ineluctable constituent of centuries of social, geopolitical and religious history wrought by the billions of other humans who have lived through them. In short, for all its ambition, there's always humility.
The album closes with "Young Lion", more a fragment of musical thought than a song: a nostalgic piano riff, upright bass, and the lyric "you take your time, young lion" repeated a few times. The album was written as the band members approached their 30s – a time of bleary-eyed reflection, sorting out one's place in the world, pondering what it all means. The world might seem to close in pretty fast, but maybe the best thing to do is to take your time.