Leaving a band does two things. The more obvious one is that it puts to bed a chapter in one’s life, serving as an end to an era not just in the musical project but also in one’s personal existence. The other thing leaving a band does is give you an opportunity for rebirth if rebirth is what you want to have.
When Rostam Batmanglij left Vampire Weekend, there were questions from fans and pundits alike. Some argued that he was the most prominent creative force in the group, while others suggested that perhaps he was the secret sauce that made the band what it was. The truth is something that remains to be seen — Rostam still had a presence on Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Father of the Bride, so it’s not like anyone in the equation has completely cut the cord.
Still, what we do have to go on is a handful of Rostam solo projects, 2017’s Half-Light and 2016’s collaboration with Hamilton Leithauser, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. Adding to that slate is Rostam’s latest, Changephobia, which sees the producer expand his parameters while staying true to his signature atmospheric song-crafting approach. The result is a mixed bag that features all sides of a fearless guy in construction yet practical in tone.
The most interesting moments come when he decides to feature frequent collaborator Henry Solomon on saxophone. “Unfold You” is a lazy stroll down a rainy road peppered with Solomon’s sad hook. Making it more macabre is the quality of the recording of Solomon’s parts. There’s a disconnect between the pristine electronic textures Rostam is so good at manufacturing and the guy-in-a-room aesthetic that Solomon brings. The juxtaposition between seemingly setting one mic up, hitting record, and letting someone play and the expected percussive processing is exceptionally intriguing.
The same goes for the title track, which is a bit more upbeat and, frankly, more focused. This time around, Solomon is saved for a solo during the bridge, and it works in spades. So much so that if Rostam were ever to tour, it’d be hard to imagine these songs without such soulful sax playing. “Kinney” is another Solomon feature, yet while it allows the saxophonist to attack the song frantically, it also marks the presence of one reality from which Rostam may never outrun: His relationship with Vampire Weekend.
To be fair, who knows if that’s something he ever wants to do anyway. But in the meantime, when a song pops up on a solo album, and that song feels like it could have, and maybe should have, been a B-side on a Vampire Weekend album, it calls into question that solo artist’s singular identity. That’s where “Kinney” comes in because it’s got the aggression of “A-Punk” and that trademark clean guitar sound that’s so synonymous with Rostam’s former band. That’s not to say it’s bad; that’s to say it’s not all that different.
The same goes for “From the Back of a Cab”, which amounts to a very pretty waltz that also serves as a reminder of how similar Rostam’s singing voice is to that of Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig. Both are smooth, feel the most comfortable when they hit the high notes, and generally come across as weightless. Still, Rostam’s plaintive delivery is charming and in the best of ways, this is the kind of music to which it shouldn’t be hard to fall asleep.
And then there are the experiments. “These Kids We Knew” is doused in Laurel Canyon vibes, with its warm snare drum and prominent acoustic guitar. It also plays with time signatures in fun ways for pop music, adding a welcome bit of stagger to the end product. “4Runner” recalls memories of George Michael in a freeing way, and it’s probably the most blatant pop song here, made for the summer of 1987, complete with a simple acoustic guitar and an upbeat groove. Then there’s “To Communicate”, which sounds like a Modern Vampires of the City outtake, as its low snare drum keeps a steady beat and the dark colors that paint themselves with pianos and bass guitars bleed through with a vengeance.
None of that is to imply that Changephobia isn’t a good album. Perhaps the title itself is Rostam acknowledging some of his musical past while paying tribute to it in sometimes-inventive ways. It’s an album that’s as concise as it is provoking and as pleasant as it is interesting. But it’s still not not-Vampire-Weekend-enough to suggest Rostam is close to stepping out of that shadow sometime soon. But who could blame him if he never does? That’s a large shadow to outrun. For as much of an influence he had on the band, we should expect albums like these.
Or, in other words, is it a rebirth that Rostam is seeking in his solo ventures? Or perhaps, is he more interested in closing a chapter? If Changephobia has a say, it appears that the latter is more likely than the former.