Artist: Vampire Weekend
Album: Father of the Bride
In Brief: It’s been six years, and Vampire Weekend has made their long-anticipated fourth album worth the wait. In many ways the music is sunnier and folksier than their past stuff, yet their love of electronic sampling and worldbeat influences still strongly influences their sound, which has taken a notable stylistic leap forward. Not all of these 18 songs are winners, and there are a few sections of the album that drag as a result of its long-windedness, but that gives the band room to try a lot of different things and see what sticks, and I’m happy to report that the vast majority of it does.
There’s a lot to love about the new Vampire Weekend album. But there’s also a lot to be intimidated by. I suppose it’s been true since their very first album that the band’s sound – which is generally pegged by critics as an East Coast preppy approximation of worldbeat filtered through indie rock – is pretty easy to get into, but that it would require a friggin’ encyclopedia to understand half the historical, geographical, and political references they drop in even some of their most easygoing songs. I never worried too much about whether I got the full picture of an album like their self-titled or Contra, because having fun cultivating their sound seemed to be their primary objective, and those records were relatively short and incredibly fun bursts of energy, making it easy to not notice or care all that much that I hadn’t dug into the tomes’ worth of Genius annotations that those lyrics inspired, from fans trying to make sense of it all. (Also, I don’t think Genius.com was a thing back then.) Their next two albums – 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, and its long-awaited follow-up, Father of the Bride, are much longer and more immersive experiences, with more downbeat sections and overall experimentation in the music, suggesting that maybe I ought to take more seriously what I had once glossed over. And that’s led to a bit of writer’s block as I’ve realized, there’s so much to unpack here that it would likely take me years to do it all justice. Perhaps some of this fear has been brought on by the gradual realization that I sold Modern Vampires of the City a bit short when it first came out, definitely enjoying the record, but not quite understanding what it was trying to do with its more minimalist experiments and some of its commentary on modern-day theism. I couldn’t have told you back then that I’d grow to realize why a track like the opener “Obvious Bicycle” that seemed to be falling apart at the seams in real-time as I listened to it would eventually become a personal favorite, or that the slow creep of the album’s stark centerpiece ballad “Hannah Hunt” would eventually become a fan favorite. I really don’t want to make the same mistake twice, but I also don’t want to want until 2025 to review Father of the Bride, so I’ll just have to go into this one with the understanding that, among these 18 tracks, there could be a few “sleeper cell” favorites where I don’t really care for whatever I think they’re trying to do, and then it’ll hit me when it’s far too late to revise this review.
First things first – you may be aware that this is their first album after the departure of keyboardist/backing vocalist/producer/multiple-hats-wearer Rostam Batmanglij. I don’t think I fully appreciated what a strong creative force Rostam was until after the news broke a few years ago. He left on good terms, and still worked with Vampire Weekend on at least a little bit of this album, but nowadays he’s got a solo gig and some other collaborative projects, and I guess he left because he wanted to be more committed to those things. That leaves lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig, drummer Chris Tomson, and bassist Chris Baio as a three-piece, though you honestly wouldn’t know it from the full sound of this record. Father of the Bride brings in a boatload of sampling and auxiliary instrumentation, in a way that I think is consistent with the band’s past, but that also gives a uniquely “sunny” feel to this record as they explore American folk and classic rock idioms in a way that I don’t think they really had before. Danielle Haim, lead singer of the band Haim, may as well be an honorary fourth member on this record, due to how a trio of duets with her act as a sort of recurring narrative about marriage, and how she can be heard backing up the band on most of the other tracks as well. The Internet singer Steve Lacy also shows up for a pair of songs about 2/3 of the way through the album, making this the first time (as far as I’m aware) that other artists have been given a feature credit on a Vampire Weekend album. The atmosphere is mostly a fun one (which deliberately offsets the emotional and political heaviness of a lot of the lyrics), where you can tell there was no shortage of ideas being passed around between all of the creative minds in the studio, giving them more than enough material to make up for the time they’d been absence. And yet, despite everything that’s going on, there are times when it feels the least like the work of a rock band in the conventional sense.
So here’s what’s tripping me up the most about Father of the Bride – it’s a lot of the individual songs, or rather, the notion of what a “song” even is. Several of these new tracks are quite short, falling in the two-minute or even minute-and-a-half range, giving themselves just enough time to present an idea in a loosely defined verse-chorus structure, and then they’re done. They’re offset nicely by some generously detailed longer tracks, of course, and with 18 tracks in total and nearly an hour of music, it would be foolish for me to complain that not everything feels like a fully fleshed-out thought. But usually, it’s easier to tell what’s an interlude and what’s a self-contained song, and Vampire Weekend has blurred that line on purpose on several occasions. This isn’t new to the band by any means – even some of their early attention-grabbers like “Mansard Roof”, “A-Punk”, and “Holiday” were over before you really wanted them to be. But due to the more easygoing nature of the new record (less jittery riffing on the guitars, more laid-back, percussive tracks built around lighter, airier guitar and keyboard parts), this can lead to several moments where you’re just starting to get into a slow groove, wondering where the band’s gonna go with it, then you realize the answer is that they’re already at the destination. It can be a tad underwhelming, especially when it feels like the “doodling in the margins” type tracks start to crowd out the true highlights somewhere in the middle third of the album.
But the highlights on this record are just… WHOA. They’re on a whole other level, even compared to some of VW’s very best work from past records. Lead single “Harmony Hall”, which establishes a balance of lyrical brilliance and unabashedly jam-band-y instrumental prowess not seen from the band before, is certainly a tough act to follow, but even for those who heard all of the singles and paired B-sides leading up the album, there are still some jaw-dropping surprises contained deeper in. What really gets me about some of the tracks is just how dense the lyrics are, and how much time Ezra must have spent shuffling playful words around to get just the right mix of alliteration, internal rhymes, and beguiling references to personal relationship dynamics and global religious conflicts and everything in between, all while making sure it was damn clear which part was the chorus and that it would be a blast to sing along with. I wish I could tell you I’d sussed out some sort of a grand story that ties all of these big and small pieces together in a way that makes a grandiose, life-changing statement. I can’t rule out the possibility that it does – I’m just not there yet, because I’m still in the midst of exploring all of the little garden paths, even the ones I know will dead end, simply because the landscaping is so ornate that I feel like it has to be appreciated in a leisurely fashion. I could be full of crap – I’m well aware of all the times in the past that I’ve tried to force a concept upon an album that wasn’t intended as such. But Vampire Weekend gave us an album that sparks curiosity over and over again with each new listen. In an era where it feels like the “album” is a format that is either getting begrudgingly acknowledged by artists who put thought only into the singles while packing the rest with filler, or abandoned altogether in terms of streaming-oriented guerrilla marketing, the fact that VW put this much effort into making a long-awaited comeback album, and could do so with the knowledge that their fans would absolutely still care, is commendable.
Be prepared for a different iteration of Vampire Weekend as you listen to this one. Ezra himself has said that the first three albums were like a trilogy covering his younger years, and that it made sense to him to take a deliberate break before starting on the next chapter. That’s the last, but most important, thing that I wanted to point out as a general thought about the album before diving into the specifics. So let’s get to it!
1. Hold You Now
The opening track is the album’s most striking mix of a more folksy acoustic style with heavy sampling. At its heart, it’s a simple duet between Ezra and Danielle about a couple nervously anticipating their wedding day – he takes the first few verses and she takes the last two. But in between is a choral sample, borrowed from the film The Thin Red Line, of a hymn sung by a choir from the Solomon Islands. This is the de facto hook of the song, and the acoustic chord progression is even built to follow its melody, so it makes sense that the film’s composer Hans Zimmer gets a writing credit here. I’m glad that this particular surprised was saved for the album release and not spoiled during one of the single releases ahead of time – it’s the kind of thing that tells you all bets are off at the beginning of an album, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to consider indicative of an upcoming album’s overall sound. As odd as this is, I really like it – I can’t get that choral sample out of my head!
2. Harmony Hall
I realize it might be a bold claim when I say that this project’s lead single is the best thing they’ve ever done. I really had to think back to my absolute favorites from other albums and think about it… Does this beat “A-Punk”? “Run”? “Diane Young?” All fantastic songs, but I have to say quite emphatically, yes, this one deserves to go down in history as Vampire Weekend’s signature song. There’s just so much going on in the generous five minutes of music we get here, from the delicious acoustic arpeggio that serves as its backbone, to the jam band-influenced piano riffing throughout, to the slightly Southern-fried electric guitar solo that shows up during the bridge section. It hits all of the right crests and troughs to give it a uniquely thrilling momentum that captivates the listener throughout, and the slithering movement of its rhythm pairs quite nicely with Ezra’s lamentation about “Wicked snakes inside the place you thought was dignified”. There is an absolute wealth of possibilities within this song’s lyrics, starting with the song’s title, which is an analogy for an “echo chamber”, in which voices harmonize beautifully, but drown out all dissent. It’s most definitely a political song, pondering the resurgence of bigotry and partisan hatred in the Western world (things which really never went away, but which seem to be more openly and proudly displayed nowadays), and wondering how this has managed to infest even some of our most revered institutions, places we thought there was room for civil disagreement and intellectually stimulating discourse. When Ezra drops the line “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die”, which is a callback to the ending of “Finger Back” from Modern Vampires of the City, it feels like that song was always intended to serve as a bit of foreshadowing for this one. It’s far too early to start handing out “Song of the Year” accolades, but let’s just say that if a more outstanding single has been released thus far in 2019, I have yet to hear it.
This is the first of a handful of… short songs/interludes/whatever lies in the uncanny valley between that I’m not quite sure what to do with. It jumps back and forth rather awkwardly between acoustic finger-picking, more raggedy electric guitar riffing in the spirit of Modern Vampires, and vocorder-soaked acapella snippets, in only the span of a minute 45 seconds. Even though I know it acts as more of a bridge between two of the album’s big singles than an attraction unto itself, I can’t help but feel like it’s a bit of a speed bump. There are definitely some lyrical snippets worth mining here, most notably in the chorus where Ezra states, “My Christian heart cannot withstand/The thundering arena/I’ll see you when the violence ends For now, ciao ciao, Bambina.” That little bit of Italian translates to “Bye bye, baby”, and it makes me wonder both who the “baby” is, and whether he’s playing a character here (since I believe Ezra identifies as Jewish, not Christian). If the title of the album is anything to go by, then the “bride” could be a metaphor for some sort of a people group or a country – perhaps it stands for Christianity or for America, or the uneasy marriage between politics and religion in this country. That would make God the “Father of the Bride” according to commonly used Christian terminology. And that would make the Christian depicted in this song about ready to turn his back on Christendom for their descent into petty violence and their failure to practice what they preach. I’m going way out on a limb with that one, most likely, but religion is enough of a recurring theme on this album that I can’t help but pick up on these things.
4. This Life
The album’s third single to be released (or fifth, if you take the paired B-sides into account) is a joyously upbeat pastiche of Paul Simon and Van Morrison. (Just listen to this one and tell me you don’t want to start singing the “Sha la la” part from “Brown Eyed Girl”.) To my ears, it’s one of the more “band-oriented” tracks on the record, in the sense that it pushes the basic combo of snappy guitar riffs, organic percussion, and a surprisingly meaty bass line upfront. Haim’s backing vocals and a little bit of electronic manipulation play into it as well, but this still feels like it would be one of the easier tracks on the record for the band to replicate live (as they did in stellar fashion with all three of the Haim sisters on Jimmy Fallon). The lyrics to this song are a collision between optimism and realism, with Ezra acknowledging that he’s aware of all the dangers lurking out there that could harm a couple’s sunny outlook on their relationship, yet they somehow naively assumed they were exempt from all of these dangers simply by acknowledging awareness of them (“Baby, I know pain is as natural as the rain/I just thought it didn’t rain in California”). The pre-chorus makes a jarring admission that “I’ve been cheating on, cheating on you/You’ve been cheating on, cheating on me”, which made my wife pointed out as we were watching them perform it on TV that this was an unusual thing to admit in such a happy-sounding song. My take on it wasn’t that it was about the couple literally committing adultery with other people, but that it was an admission that they’d been cheating their way through life by taking the easy way out rather than actually confronting their problems and fears head-on. That would seem to be the case as it pivots into the chorus: “I’ve been cheating on this life and all its suffering/Oh Christ, am I good for nothing?” It wasn’t too long ago that I might have been bothered by the phrase “Oh Christ”, as it’s usually understood to be taking the Lord’s name in vain, but due to the references to Christianity throughout this record, and especially since this song follows on from “Bambina”, it’s reasonable to assume that Ezra’s character in this song is literally addressing Christ and saying that he feels like a disappointment to him. It’s written such that you could take it either way, I guess – as a curse or a confessional. Just one of the many brilliant twists and turns in this incredibly addictive song.
5. Big Blue
There’s another song here that clocks in at under two minutes – this one was the B-side to the album’s second single “Sunflower” (which we’re not actually gonna get to until much later in the album, so I’m not 100% sure of the strategy behind pairing some of the A-sides and B-sides the way they did – but I guess I’m glad all the B-sides made the album). It’s got an appropriately laid-back, “beachy” sound to it, with bubbly synths and a bit of slide guitar, some sampled choral vocals in the background, and a short verse from Ezra expressing a sense of comfort when he’s near the ocean, and a lack thereof when he’s far from it. Not sure why that same verse needs to be repeated four times in such a brief span of time, rather than breaking it up with a bridge section or something, but I’m actually fine with this one as a thoughtful interlude. It fits well with the overall “summery” feeling of the album that masks a lot of the unrest hidden beneath.
6. How Long?
The next section of the album is where things start to drag for me a bit. the songs aren’t bad ones, nor are they necessarily even slow – some are relatively upbeat. It’s just the longest stretch of the album that contains only songs that I like, rather than songs I love. This song in particular, I can’t find any reason to complain about – it’s catchy and even a bit whimsical, with the plucked strings and a strong bassline, some heavier drums coming in at the second verse, and whatever the hell that wacky metallic DOING! sound is that keeps ringing out. As you might expect by now, this is paired with some rather depressing lyrics, which seem to reflect the other side of the impending tragedy from “This Life”, in which the protagonist is now certain that his relationship is doomed, and despite the opulent lifestyle they’ve been enjoying together, it’s only a matter of time before “we sink to the bottom of the sea”. (Which is quite a contrast from the calming image of the ocean that we get in “Big Blue”.) It’s notable that he refers to feeling like “The ghost of Christmas past” and later asks “Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” I hadn’t even realized until now that this might connect with the opening like from “Harmony Hall”, which states “We took a vow in summertime, now we find ourselves in late December.” Since this album finds refuge in “summery” sounds, it seems logical that wintertime and/or the end of the calendar year is repeatedly used as an analogy for a bleaker period in this couple’s relationship.
7. Unbearably White
The B-side to “This Life” was an interesting choice in that it was a longer track, rather than the interlude-like selections that had been paired with the previous two singles. The song makes its appearance on the album here, where even though I think it’s a well-written track, its placement seems to deaden the overall pacing of the record a bit, since it’s a slower track based around a fairly mellow guitar riff and laid-back hand percussion. Just from the title alone, you might guess that Vampire Weekend is kind of poking fun at their “preppy white boy” image, but this is actually a pretty serious song, in which the concept of “whiteness” doesn’t refer to race, but rather the literal color white as a source of overpowering, blinding light, or extreme cold such as a snowstorm, or a lack of information, such as a blank piece of paper. Most analogies based around light and darkness tend to use the light as a good thing; here it seems to be more of a foreboding thing, putting a chilling effect on relationships and preventing people from seeing the truth. The analogy seems to reflect a colorless existence, which is why the track is more sparse and doesn’t have a big hook. This one might repeat itself a bit too much to be a standout, but I do like the overall mood and the message of it. I just feel like it should come later in the album, as the action is winding down.
8. Rich Man
There are so many samples and interpolations of little bits of other people’s songs on this record that I couldn’t hope to spot them all. But it’s pretty obvious that the guitar part this song is built around is a looped sample. Guitarist S. E. Rogie from Sierra Leone is credited for that, and from the sound of it, it’s a pretty old recording that once again, Vampire Weekend has used as scaffolding for the melody and chord structure of their own song. I kind of like how the lo-fi backbone of the song collides with the modern-day vocals and the rich string section, and since this is a slower song, the effect reminds me a bit of “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” from their first album. What I don’t like so much are the lyrics. I’m 99% sure Ezra is going for irony when he sings about being the one in a thousand rich men who are actually satisfied with their lot. It would be an interesting narrative, due to how it upends the expectation that rich people are all secretly miserable and always wanting to consume more and more. But this is one of those songs where it’s a bit difficult to separate a character he might be playing whose pride is about to undergo a huge fall, from the actual rock star singing it, who is pretty well off. I don’t begrudge successful people for having a lot of money, if they use it to do good rather than evil. I might begrudge them slightly for humblebragging about having it, though.
9. Married in a Gold Rush
If I’m wrong about “Gold Rush” and it is, in fact, just another part in an ongoing story, then this is the part of that story where the wealthy couple realizes how much their wealth and the expectations of high society that come attached to it are dragging them down. Either that, or the political tides have turned against them in their home country, and the only way to get out from under an impressive regime is to ditch their assets and run. I was pretty excited for this one at first, because it’s another one of the duets with Danielle, and this time around there’s a little more vocal interplay between her and Ezra – rather than just “he gets a verse, she gets a verse”, they’re volleying lines back and forth in a few places like it’s a conversation. The gist of it seems to be that he’s plotting an escape and telling her to forget about the money and all the burdens that come with it, and just hop aboard a midnight train with him to who knows where, and she sees the signs that he’s planning this and mistakes his sneaking around at night for an affair. As much as I love hearing the two interact in this manner, and as much as I think this song is a centerpiece of the album’s narrative, I can’t help but feel like the rest of the supporting players are letting the two vocalists down here. This track builds up no real momentum. It tries to get a cute, sexy little guitar part going, but the thumping beat feels lifeless, with the soul programmed out of it, and the arrangement feels rather watery overall. They should have either gone for a strong live band performance as in “This Life”, or made this one a true ballad where it would be more natural to expect the other instruments to get out of the way. Aiming straight down the middle between these two possibilities really dulls the impact of an otherwise well-written and well-sung song.
10. My Mistake
Technically this would be the first song in the back half of the album, if you split it down the middle with 9 songs in each half. Pacing-wise, I tend to view this one as the closing track of the first half, though, because it’s a true ballad, and it’s a sleepy one even by the downbeat standards of some of the preceding tracks. This time around they’re going for a dusky torch song sort of approach, which if I’m honest isn’t something Ezra really has the voice for. He’s good with the dry wit and the earnest schoolboy puppy love, but not so much with the crooning. With that said, this track isn’t bad… just out of place in a section of the record that has already been testing my patience a bit. It actually took me a while to realize I was rather indifferent toward this one – at first I was actually intrigued by the watery production values (literally this time – you can actually hear running water in the background), the jazzy piano chords, the horn interlude that breaks in a few times to give it a slight bit more body, and the fact that it’s the only track on that album that breaks out of 4/4 time. It’s rather indecisive about whether that time signature is 3/4, as it is in the verses, or whatever the hell time signature that lopsided horn part is in, so this turns out to be a small comfort. The lyrics seem to be following up on the escape plan from the previous song, and Ezra is expressing regret here because that escape has been botched, apparently because he was banking on the kindness of strangers to let him slip past the border undetected, and he was shown no such mercy.
“I think I take myself too serious. It’s not that serious.” Well, thank you for that little bit of insight, Steve Lacy. Are you on this track? Ah well, we’ll get to you soon enough. Regardless of who participated, this track is balls-to-the-wall insane, and I love it for that. I guess I’d describe it as… flamenco bebop dance club? That’s the best I can do when I hear the peppy handclaps and flamenco-style guitar colliding with a thumping club beat, and some pretty sweet runs on the upright bass here and there. It’s bizarre even by the band’s usual genre-mixing standards, and it’s the most fun thing on the album because of it. (They even bring in a double bass pedal for the drum breakdown at the end, which Ezra joked was “the most metal thing we’ve ever done”. Ironic turn of events, for a band I once assumed must have been a metal band upon first hearing their name.) The song features another of the band’s most dense and mystifying sets of lyrics, though there’s a line in the second verse that helps to unlock the meaning of the song and tie it in to the religious turmoil alluded to elsewhere in the album: “Judeo-Christianity, I never heard the world/Enemies for centuries until there was a third.” That third, of course being Islam, the youngest of three religions all sharing a common point of origin. So essentially the song is about uneasy allies, who used to quarrel with each other, coming together against what they now perceive as a greater threat. Which makes me wonder, would it take an even greater threat for all three of them to focus more on what they have in common? This is basically “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” in the form of a highly chaotic song.
The album’s second single (or second A-side, I guess) is the first of two thematically related tracks that actually do feature Steve Lacy. I’m guessing he’s singing, playing guitar or both – I can’t immediately tell his voice apart from Ezra’s, because the two spend a lot of this surprisingly short little ditty either singing in unison or stacking up the vocal harmonies. And it is an utter delight, packing some sweet, sunny chord changes, a playful guitar riff, and some even more playful scat singing that follows along with the guitar riff, into just over two minutes. (Basically it sounds like one of the guys was trying to sing the guitar riff he was imagining in his head to the other one, and when they finally got the instrumental part down, they decided to keep the vocal part on top of it, because they realized the audience would probably have as much fun as they did “Do-be-doo”-ing along with it. I’m one of those weirdos who likes to sing along to instrumental riffs sometimes, so thank you, Vampire Weekend, for making me feel seen.) Listening to this one, it’s east to picture that lanky, oversized flower poking up out of a field, knowing it sticks out like a sore thumb and not caring. I can also picture a VW bus (uh, I mean a Volkswagen bus, not Vampire Weekend bus) parked in that field with the side door open and some hippies hanging out, blasting the song from their speakers, because seriously, this is the most 70s thing that VW (the band, not the bus) has ever done. It only takes the length of “A-Punk” for this song to make its point, and I feel a little sad when it slows down for the final run through its riff and then quickly wraps up, because I find myself wanting this thing to go on for twice as long. Perhaps it could have gotten annoying if it actually did, so maybe it was best to quit while they were ahead.
13. Flower Moon
I love the symmetry of these two song titles, and the fact that Steve Lacy features on both of them. Musically, they don’t seem linked in any way that I can detect, but I’m fine with that because this one lasts almost twice as long as its counterpart. At first I was misled into thinking it was going to be an Autotune-soaked, Bon Iver-esque musical purgatory, but as much as VW likes to play around with the digitized vocals, here they were smart enough to use it as an intro, bring it back for a little vocal spice later on, but not base the entire song around it, so in that sense it’s less jarring than what we heard on “Diane Young” or “Ya Hey” six years ago. This one’s another triumph of both rhythm and melody, fusing a breezy, vocal heavy chorus together with an unusual chord progression in the verse, one that takes a few times through for the listener to grasp where the melody is going, because at first Lacy is doing a spoken word bit, and then Ezra begins to stack vocal melodies on top of it one by one. Danielle even pops in on the bridge, making the song feel like a huge backyard barbecue that everyone was invited to.
As the B-side to “Harmony Hall” when it was released back in January, this minute-and-a-half track, the shortest on the album, was my first indication that there would be a lot of experimenting and scribbling in the margins on this record. The band samples both Jenny Lewis (for the vocal line that says “Boy!” over and over) and Japanese musician Haruomi Hosono (whose slow synth melody is the basis for the song), and now that I’m hearing it juxtaposed with “Flower Moon”, I can see how both songs are about the passage of time, with “Flower Moon” taking a now-or-never approach to making some sort of escape, noting that the next opportunity is a year away, and “2021” pointing out that they can wait a year, but not three. I’m still unsure of what this all means when put together, and at first I was rather underwhelmed by the minimal lyrics and short length of this track, but I’ve got to admit that I like the brief electric guitar solo that comes in about halfway through. It closes on such a resolved note that I wouldn’t blame a listener who hadn’t looked at the track listing ahead of time for thinking this was where the album was going to end. The reflective mood of it is similar to the brief “Young Lion” from Modern Vampires, and to be honest, I like the idea of it as a closing track more than I like the actual ending of this album.
15. We Belong Together
When one of the reasons you like a band is because you enjoy the riddle of figuring out what a lot of their lyrics are about, it can be weird when they deliberately take that away from you by writing a straightforward song that is meant to be immediately understood. That was apparently the intent behind this song, which came from an idea that Ezra had been kicking around since back when Rostam was in the band (and there’s still a 12-string guitar part and some drum programming from one of his old demos that made it into the song). This is the last of the three duets with Danielle, and it finds them simply singing about how they belong together like… pairs of things that belong together. (Duh.) More specifically, pairs of things that seem like opposites but that complement each other well, like surf and sand, bottles and cans, lions and lambs, that sort of thing. (My favorite of these pairings is “Keats and Yeats”. Even at his most deliberately simplistic, Ezra can’t help but drop a few poetry references in there for the English lit nerds. (I’ll take “Famous names that look like they should rhyme but don’t” for $500, Alex.) When the two voices sing in unison in the chorus “Baby, there’s no use in being clever”, I have to admit that this is a pretty good excuse for being straightforward rather than cryptic with your words – when you’re so in love with someone that you know there’s no use trying to disguise it. If this is how Vampire Weekend does “three chords and the truth”, then I’ve gotta say, I’m here for it.
Another fairly simple love song is up next, and I’ve got to say this is a refreshing change in tone after some of the earlier songs, where the music was deliberately upbeat as a way of contrasting with the lyrics that hinted at trouble beneath the surface. This one in particular seems to be personal to Ezra, since it references “you and Kidada” a few times in the lyrics (Kidada Jones being the sister of his partner Rashida Jones – or as most of us know her, Ann Perkins/Angie Tribeca. I don’t tend to follow celebrities’ personal lives that closely, so it’s quite a pleasant surprise to find out two people I adore from completely different creative worlds are an item.) The song is mostly about being in a house with a group of people who feels like family, maybe they’re partying and having a good time, and he’s just sort of in the next room taking it all in, marveling at how he used to feel like an outsider but no longer does. Danielle’s here for backup vocals again, with their chorus hook immediately standing out as one you can instantly join in and sing along with, and there are a few horns together to give the arrangement a bit of soul. (Cheesy sax solos for irony’s sake are so 2011, so it’s a nice change of pace to hear this done with complete sincerity.)
17. Summer Snow
And we’re back to the paradoxically sunny sadness! At this point, I wouldn’t blame you for being a bit fatigued. (Both with listening to this album and with reading this behemoth review I’ve written. Good God.) If this record were a season of a TV show, this would be one of the filler episodes… maybe even the clip show recapping the events so far for lazy viewers, if you’re really cynical. What’s Vampire Weekend doing at this point that they haven’t done better previously? The gratuitous Auto-tuning at the beginning is outright annoying. It tries to sound sweet, but the trick has outlived its usefulness. The combination of programmed elements with African-style drums is one of their calling cards. That’s OK here, but nothing special. The piano playing is nice – I’ll give them that. But a quick perusal of the lyrics gives us a rundown of themes that have been expressed earlier in the album, without really moving the pieces around the playing field all that much. Snowfall is a metaphor that was already used in “Unbearably White”. A doomed couple trying to stave off the end of their relationship by escaping on a train was the apparent main plot point of “Married in a Gold Rush” and “My Mistake”. Even going back to the album’s overarching motif of changing seasons representing the stages of a couple’s relationship feels a bit stale at this point. This is a brief and pleasant enough song, aside from the unwelcome digitized vocal warbling. But having a few forgettable tracks like this one admittedly pokes a few holes in my original excitement over the sheer length of the album, and my insistence after the first few listens that the sheer amount of new material wasn’t enough to make the band run the risk of wearing out their welcome.
18. Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
I have a lot of respect for the album’s closing song. It probably isn’t gonna sound like it given my “meh” response to what it’s doing musically… but I really do think it’s well-written. You can probably tell from the three cities named in the title that it’s political in nature, and sure enough, this one manages to allude to places and events that have been historical turning points for the Jewish people, lending just a slight bit of credibility to the crazy idea I’ve been kicking around that the “young marriage” examined in this album may well be an uneasy metaphor for Judaism’s relationship to either Christianity, or just the world at large. Ezra seems to sing the words “All I do is lose, but baby/All I want’s to win” with a heavy sigh in the chorus, because he’s looking back at events where his people have suffered heavy losses time and time again. It’s significant to have Danielle Haim on backing vocals one last time, as she too is of Jewish ancestry. Were it only up to the lyrics, I’d give this song a strong grade simply for the desperate “can’t we all just get along?” sort of message underlying the album’s many allusions to how the three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have interacted with each other over the years. Alas, there’s not much going on here musically. It’s a short song, built around simple and sparse piano chords, with a synth line running through it that feels a bit out of place, and that just sort of abruptly stops when the song has otherwise come to a quiet, reflective ending. It feels like a transitional piece, musically speaking, that leads the ear to expect something after it. I guess you could loop it back around to the lyrical cold open of “Hold You Now” if you felt compelled to put the album on repeat. But as a finale to such an ambitious album, it feels more than a bit undercooked.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hold You Now $1.25
Harmony Hall $2
This Life $1.75
Big Blue $.50
How Long? $1
Unbearably White $.75
Rich Man $.50
Married in a Gold Rush $.75
My Mistake $.50
Flower Moon $1.75
We Belong Together $1.25
Summer Snow $.50
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin $.50
Ezra Koenig: lead vocals, guitar, piano
Chris Tomson: drums, percussion, backing vocals
Chris Baio: bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: