On paper, Vampire Weekend is mind-numbingly precocious in the way that turns many people away from indie rock’s incessant hipsterisms. Frontman Ezra Koenig fills his dizzying circumlocutions with as many quirky references as possible, evidenced by “Horchata”, the opening cut from its 2010 LP Contra: “In December drinking horchata/I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.” The band incorporates non-mainstream styles and genres—Afrobeat on its self-titled debut is one example—that demonstrate an interest in musical diversity that some might class as “eccentric”. And, most tellingly, these guys are all young (late twenties, to be exact), but their music is enamored with growing old. To paraphrase the words of Max in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, they “reminisce events before they even occur.” “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth,” Koenig sings on “Step”, the first single from the group’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City. “Age is an honor—it’s still not the truth.” The instrumentation on this LP reflects this desire for days past: the pianos twinkle with the worn quality of a barroom upright and the strings are sweeping in the style of a vintage Hollywood romance. Vampire Weekend may have successfully crafted the first black-and-white album, which may well have been its goal.
This old-world fascination is undoubtedly the defining characteristic of Modern Vampires of the City. One need look no further to confirm this fact than the gorgeous sleeve art for the record, a 1966 shot taken by Neal Boenzi during the most polluted day in New York. If one knows the context of the picture, it’s easy to focus not on the beauty of Boenzi’s black-and-white panorama and instead imagine one’s windows covered in layers of black smog and soot. Vampire Weekend, however, clearly finds a majesty amidst and beneath those clouds of pollution. This isn’t to say it’s merely pining for “the old days”. After all, the word “modern” is present in the name of the record; the band is obviously content to be a part of the present age, even if it wishes fedoras and suspenders were still the norm. The sliding scale between nostalgia and being contemporary is a hard one to find balance on well, and it’s that challenge that Vampire Weekend has taken upon itself since its inception. As a musical group its goal is to sound as at home as its does in 2013 as it might have in 1966. And, for the most part, Modern Vampires of the City finds Vampire Weekend attaining the timelessness of the titular mythic creature with an impressive sophistication. One still may have to suspend disbelief in order to accept Koenig as a legitimate purveyor in the vintage arts, especially when he stumbles through a rapid, bluegrass-esque vocal delivery on “Worship You”, but on the whole this is a work of art that’s demonstrative of music’s ability to traverse the bounds of time.
Unlike Vampire Weekend and Contra, there is a less of an emphasis on inventive takes of differing genres. The group here instead aims at a core style—best described as “old with the new”—that spins off in divergent directions. The hooky “Diane Young” finds Koenig in full-on surf rock mode. “Hudson” is the one track here that brings in elements of the horror implied by the word “vampire”, with a ghastly choir weaving in and out of minor-key strings and organ. (The effect is more old-school silent film than Twilight.) The meshing of a breakbeat and an expansive string section forms the core of “Don’t Lie”. These various experiments may sound tangential, but Vampire Weekend remains cohesive throughout. Modern Vampires of the City is very much an indie rock record. There’s never a moment to suggest otherwise in these tightly conceived 43 minutes—the unsubtle Modest Mouse shout-out in “Step” notwithstanding. Koenig’s voice, along with his diction, betrays the youth that he and his bandmates so often strive to shrug off. On the highlight “Unbelievers”, he sings, “Girl, you and I will die unbelievers / Bound to the tracks of the train” with the reckless abandon of Jesse James. You can practically see him wink at you. Moments like this reveal the group’s grasp on the genuine rebellion that indie rock ought to strive for. Admittedly, Vampire Weekend isn’t exactly countercultural; in a rather stunning turn of events, it topped the Billboard 200 with its second record, a considerable achievement for any band, let alone one ensconced in the indie fold. But here it at least manages to not get caught up in its own nonconformity, a sign that the age it so strives for may well be within its reach.
“You and me, we’ve got our own sense of time,” Koenig ponders on the understated gem “Hannah Hunt”. If this album is any indication, however, time might be a foreign concept in the world of Vampire Weekend. With each step this ambitious rabble takes, it finds itself reminiscing on a different aspect of the past, in the process delineating how hours and minutes are anything but linear—it’s not hard to imagine an old-timey, 35mm montage backing the sentimental closer “Young Lion”. Some might find this nostalgia insufferable, but, then again, those people probably never really bought into Vampire Weekend in the first place. But for those who have been gripped or at least mildly interested by the band’s progression over its first two LPs will find Modern Vampires of the City to be an expansive, illustrious work that—while clearly a 21st century recording—is a reminder of the gift musicians have to leave the door in one decade and come back in another. As the last seconds of “Obvious Bicycle” give way to a gorgeous piano outro, it’s not hard to imagine these four gentlemen pacing forward to the blaring lights of Times Square with the soot of 1966 Manhattan dusting their shoes.
// Notes from the Road
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