The biggest surprise of Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City is that it's a deeply God-haunted album, with Ezra Koenig posing some questions that don't have answers.
On Vampire Weekend’s first two LPs, lead singer and lyricist Ezra Koenig name-dropped Lil’ Jon, Peter Gabriel, and Jackson Crowder (identity not important) more times than he did God. In fact, Koenig’s lone reference to the divine was merely colloquial in nature: On “I Stand Corrected”, he sings, “Lord knows I haven’t tried”. That hardly counts. Though memorable, Koenig’s lyrical concerns back then didn’t register as all that weighty or ruminative. They instead had the mark of privileged, idle-time eccentricity, e.g. punctuation distinctions, sartorial refinement, and milky Spanish beverages. What came to the fore through such imagery, especially on the band’s eponymous debut, was a vivid sense of place. Fleshed-out themes weren’t a priority.
On this count, Vampire Weekend’s newly released third record—far and away its best—is a much different and more interesting animal. Though Koenig hasn’t jettisoned his colorful and digressive wordplay, Modern Vampires of the City comes through as a very theme-driven collection of songs. Both the sunny Ivy League provincialism of the band’s debut and the confident post-undergraduate worldliness of Contra are in the rear-view. In their place: aging, death, and the Man Upstairs, the last of these perhaps most overtly. Modern Vampires of the City is indeed a deeply God-haunted work, with song titles that include “Unbelievers”, “Everlasting Arms”, “Worship You”, and “Ya Hey” (think “Yahweh”). Now Koenig doesn’t give any indication he himself is a believer (more often just the opposite), but there is a recurring sense of engagement with God throughout the album, a sense of wrestling with the implications and impossibilities of faith. By accident or, more likely, by design, this builds and builds until Koenig puts everything on the table and addresses God directly.