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.
It starts with the strummy, organ-happy “Unbelievers”, just the second entry on the album. With a matter-of-fact tone, Koenig sings of the fiery judgment that, according to “half of the world”, lies ahead for him and his faithless lover: "We know the fire awaits unbelievers / All of the sinners the same". His prospects are apparently a tad grim. He asks for grace but doesn't expect to be awarded any. Resigned to a torturous fate, he wonders if the earth’s waters might “contain a little drop” for him -- a sly reference to the New Testament parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It’s all a put-on, of course, as Koenig admits with the line, "I'm not excited". But the choice of subject matter is telling. There’s sin, there's hell, and -- by extension -- there’s God from almost the outset. It's noteworthy, though, that Koenig’s shrugging, ironic tone helps him maintain distance from his maker.
This distances holds for the first half of Modern Vampires of the City. God continues to be present, but only in peripheral details. On "Don't Lie", Koenig sings something about God's love dying (or is it "God's love die young"?), but the larger meaning isn't clear. Then on the subsequent track, "Hannah Hunt", Koenig encounters "a man of faith" who cautions him that "hidden eyes could see what (he) was thinking". He dismisses the warning and moves on. Such is the dynamic through the first six tracks. Koenig invokes God and employs the language of religion only to waive it all off. On this level, his dual role as songwriter and narrative participant plays out with an interesting kind of tension. It begs the question: what’s the point? That remains unknown. But, again, what matters most is that Koenig can't seem to shake God. He can’t put him out of mind.
On side two, Koenig raises the stakes considerably, paving the way for a dramatic confrontation with God. En route, there's "Everlasting Arms", which appears to draw its title from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. 33:27 reads, "The eternal God is your refuge / And underneath are the everlasting arms”. Not for everyone, though. On the verses of this airy amble, Koenig shuns the ostensible comforts offered in that passage, countering that his attempts at faith have only brought hardship. What he wants is freedom from God's supposed loving omnipresence: "I took your counsel and came to ruin / Leave me to myself / Leave me to myself". He continues: "Oh I was made to live without you / But I'm never going to understand / Never understand". Though Koenig’s delivery belies it, the message is spiteful rejection.
But then comes the chorus, where Koenig seems to utterly reverse course: "Hold me in your everlasting arms / Looked up full of fear / Trapped beneath a chandelier that's going down" (the last part being a possible allusion to the cover art of VW's debut). Is Koenig describing that very human tendency of calling upon the divine -- even as an unbeliever -- in a desperate moment? It’s a reasonable interpretation I think. It’s less clear what his take is: Is he sympathetic, suspicious, or just intrigued by the idea? His subsequent mentions of the “Dies Irae” -- a famous medieval Latin hymn about the Day of Judgement -- and Handel's Hallelujah chorus reinforce the sense of opposing thoughts while not providing any clarity. But maybe that’s beside the point. Maybe Koenig’s aim is simply to convey existential confusion, with “I’m never going to understand” being the crux of the lyric.
If so, “Everlasting Arms” is but a warm-up for the earnest bewilderment on “Ya Hey”, which is something like the climax of Modern Vampires of the City (and perhaps the band’s finest moment). Redolent of a bombed-out cathedral and swathed with ethereal choir chants, "Ya Hey" is a one-sided conversation with God -- or Yahweh (YHWH), the name given in the Old Testament for the god of the Israelites. Koenig is essentially throwing up his arms in bafflement at God’s unsearchable ways. There are two basic questions he poses to his vaunted target: Why love an unfaithful world? And why not show yourself for all to see and know? In other words, why concealment instead of outright revelation? WHY MAKE THIS SO HARD? It's a heavy, gripping, powerful track (and not your typical plaint against the problem of evil).
Koenig begins by observing that God’s creations -- his children -- have spurned him: “Oh sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love / Babylon don’t love you”. The list later grows to include America and Koenig himself. But in the face of such wide-scale repudiation, what does God do? To Koenig’s chagrin, nothing. He stays pat, refusing to correct the “mistakes” of the world he authored. His “secret career” remains just that. As Koenig sings on the bracing chorus, “Through the fire and through the flame / You won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am / But who could ever live that way?” This, of course, calls to mind the Exodus story of Moses and the burning bush, in which God cryptically reveals his name as “I am that I am”. Moreover, “fire” and “flame” likely symbolize the earthly pain and destruction that God (horrifyingly, in the eyes of many) seems to permit. Either way, it’s another very specific Biblical tie-in, underscoring the serious manner in which Koenig is treating this subject. He even honors the Jewish tradition of not uttering “Yahweh” aloud, using instead the close phonetic substitute “ya hey” (or "Hey Ya" in reverse).
Excluding “Finger Back”, which mentions the Dome of the Rock (meaning the three major Abrahamic faith traditions are represented), and “Worship You”, which contains some religious imagery that I can’t make heads or tails of, that’s the song-by-song breakdown. What does it add up to for the record as a whole? I’m not sure. The best guess I can hazard is that, now 29, Koenig sees the world as a bit darker and more uncertain than he once did. No longer restless and powered by the unearned confidence of youth, he's been forced to confront some of life's vexing questions. It's space ripe for reflections of the kind we find on this album. It also wouldn't be surprising if spiritual matters were simply of great intellectual interest to Koenig. He has the air of someone naturally curious and eager for the stimulation of ideas. Whatever the case, Koenig’s mature and thoughtful contemplation of God is no small part of why Vampire Weekend’s third record stands as their best to date. Not only is Modern Vampires of the City sonically adventurous and melodically rich, but -- with Koenig sinking his teeth deep into some profound themes -- it engages the mind and the heart in unexpected ways.