Vampire Weekend Attempt Their 'White Album with 'Father of the Bride'
With the sprawling 18-track Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend have written their White Album.
Father of the Bride
3 May 2019
Even now, 11 years after Vampire Weekend's breakthrough with its 2008 self-titled LP, it seems that one can't just have opinions about the New York City indie outfit. No, one must have capital-O Opinions, the kind liable to generate thinkpieces at the drop of a hat. All the basic starting points remain the same: "They're privileged." "They culturally appropriated Afropop." "This sounds like Paul Simon for millennials." "Is this music trying to sell me a Bonobos printed short-sleeve button-up?" No matter one's angle, by merely invoking Vampire Weekend they will have more than enough fire-starting material to instigate a Twitter debate or overly loud conversation at a music festival.
Already, the release of Father of the Bride – Vampire Weekend's fourth LP, and first since 2013's Modern Vampires of the City – has resulted in an initial wave of thinkpieces, beginning with the sharply written if hyperbolically titled "The Only Living Band in New York." Vampire Weekend is blessed and cursed by its status as a buzz band, which is surprising now, given that the very era from which the group emerged has already faded away.
It's at this point where I should admit that, unlike the many critics who heaped praise on Vampire Weekend and its even more popular follow-up, Contra (2010), I wasn't particularly impressed by either record at the time. Nor, however, did I find much in their music objectionable enough to mount a strongly worded online missive; to me, both of those records sound like a group of precocious mostly white dudes giving it the college try, which one could say for dozens of bands at the height of indie rock's major public appreciation.
It was only with Modern Vampires of the City that I felt that Vampire Weekend showed their true promise. Sure, even that album sports some features which prove a persistent source of consternation for the band's detractors, what with its Paul Simon worship ("Unbelievers", which nonetheless transcends its inspiration) and twee, old-soul-in-a-young-body musings ("Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth" on "Step"). But lead vocalist Ezra Koenig's lyrics for the most part mature out of the young man's clumsiness which defines the overcompensating wordy Vampire Weekend and Contra, and musically the band delivers its most cohesive statement to date. Most of all, Modern Vampires presents a version of Vampire Weekend that's less bound to its indie roots, one that non-indie listeners could appreciate without feeling like they're missing too many cultural or aesthetic reference points.
A lot has happened for Vampire Weekend since 2013. Producer and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij departed from the band not long after Modern Vampires, though he still infrequently collaborates with his now-former bandmates in between his various solo projects, including the LP I Had a Dream that You Were Mine, written and recorded with the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser. Koenig and his partner, actress Rashida Jones, welcomed a child into the world. Somewhat predictably, the recording process for what has now become Father of the Bride dragged on for many years. Initially the LP was given the working title Mitsubishi Macchiato, "for obvious reasons", per Koenig. (Okay, maybe the haters have a point.) Then, at the start of 2019, Koenig teased the acronym of Vampire Weekend's fourth studio affair, FOTB, announced both that it would be a double album, and that songs from it would be released through "drops" consisting of two to three songs at a time. (In the end, there's a double LP's worth of music on FOTB, but in both CD and download formats it's presented as a single, nearly hour-long disc.)
Koenig, in the album reveal on his Instagram page, stated that he didn't feel the six years separating Modern Vampires from Father of the Bride were all that long, even though that time is double the length of the spaces between Vampire Weekend's first three releases. But from the moment that one begins the 18-track journey that is Father of the Bride, it becomes clear just how much time passed, as it brims over with dozens of musical ideas that could have only come to be over a prolonged period.
Given that this record is titled Father of the Bride, it's unsurprising that what stands out the most initially about this music is its referentiality. What sounds like a copping of the "You Can't Always Get What You Want" children's choir on the opening number "Hold You Now" turns out to be a reference of something else: a sample from Hans Zimmer's score to Terrence Malick's 1999 philosophical war epic The Thin Red Line. The chord progression to "Bambina" more than tips its hat to Pachelbel's Canon in D. "This Life" opens with a guitar riff likely to make people turn their heads and ask, "Is that 'Brown-Eyed Girl?'" when they hear it come out of the speakers of a hipster bar.
As the record winds on in interesting and often unpredictable ways, one clear spiritual successor stands out above all the other references: The Beatles' self-titled, or White Album. Like that most legendary of double LPs, Father of the Bride is a shaggy and at times messy collection of tracks which, both in spite of and because of its uneven structure, manages to make a cohesive statement overall. That is far from saying that Vampire Weekend is to indie now what the Beatles were to popular music back in 1968. Father of the Bride has nothing so eternal as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "Helter Skelter" to its name. But, at its very best, it does reach some "Martha My Dear"-esque highs.
Just before the Zimmer sample smashes into the mix of "Hold You Know", Koenig stops singing and playing guitar, and quietly we can hear him say, "Alright." If one word of the many sung and said on Father of the Bride best captures the ethos of what the record achieves, it's that: "alright", on to the next thing. "Alright", let's see what crazy thing we can pull off. For every relatively conventional rock or pop tune on this record – the lead single and early highlight "Harmony Hall", "This Life", "We Belong Together" – there's a corresponding one-off experiment.
Catchy but ephemeral ditties like "Big Blue" and "Rich Man" most evoke the White Album spirit, while the dream-like "2021" develops only long enough for a lone guitar lead to lay out an interesting idea. The band's choice to intersperse these bite-sized numbers throughout the Father of the Bride gives it a slap-dash, picaresque feeling, which adds to the record's character and helps things move at a pretty quick (but not too-quick) clip. If one wants to call this a double album, it's certainly one of the shortest ever recorded, both in absolute terms and in the flow of the music itself.
Vampire Weekend - Hold You Now (Official Audio) ft. Danielle Haim
Not all of these one-offs succeed. "Bambina" almost stands out as a fun if slight number, up until the point the song concludes with Koening gratuitously putting Auto-Tune on his voice and harmonizing with himself, apropos of nothing. ("Spring Snow" late in the album reuses this unwelcome gimmick.) "Sunflower", whose Jonah Hill-directed music video artfully imagines Koenig and collaborator Steve Lacy (of the Internet) as partners in a '70s buddy-cop flick, mostly consists of the two men singing wordlessly to match the cool lead guitar lick, which in two minutes quickly dissolves into little more than a flight of fancy. Half-cooked ideas are a natural risk in the double/extra long album format; especially in the genres of pop and rock, it's difficult to fill a regular long player with consistently great tunes. Vampire Weekend's foibles on Father of the Bride, more often than not, derive less from their own musical ideas and more from the exhaustion inherent to writing a lengthy piece of music.
But in the end Father of the Bride's peaks overshadow its low points. "Harmony Hall" ranks among the best Vampire Weekend tunes, and features a surprisingly natural recapitulation of a Modern Vampires refrain that feels all the more apt in a more politically tumultuous world than the one which met that 2013 LP: "I don't want to live like this / But I don't want to die." As much as it cribs from Van Morrison, "This Life" is nonetheless a sprightly summer jam, meant to come on over portable speakers at the beach the moment one puts on their sunglasses. Father of the Bride's other Steve Lacy collaboration, "Flower Moon", works where its predecessor "Sunflower" falters; it bustles with lively guitar lines, horns, and a sample-worthy beat.
Vampire Weekend's smartest collaboration choice here, though, can be heard in the tunes which feature Danielle Haim, whose vocals pair perfectly with Koenig's. Her contrasting verses on "Hold You Now" establish a playful rapport between herself and Koenig early on, which comes back again later on "Married in a Gold Rush", a millennial take on the lovers-on-the-lam folk ballad. Excepting some cloying couplets ("We go together like Keats and Yeats / Bowls and plates, days and dates"), "We Belong Together" helps tie the bow on the latter half of Father of the Bride due largely to Haim and Koenig's chemistry. The two of them have pretty good reason to start concocting a duets record if their interplay here is any indication.
Father of the Bride certainly won't make converts of the skeptics, or those who find these guys, to quote the band itself, "Unbearably White". The music doesn't break strongly enough from Vampire Weekend's past, and when it goes beyond what the band has done before it ends up being even more artificially eccentric than a song called "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa". For that reason, the record might even test some Vampire Weekend fans: following the generally beloved Modern Vampires, Father of the Bride takes risks that could alienate even those who are in it for the quirks.
As someone who doesn't have any capital-O Opinions about Vampire Weekend, all I can say is this: for a record of this ambition, Koenig and his bandmates succeed far more than they fail, and even their slip-ups somehow end up deepening Father of the Bride's diverse sonic character. Father of the Bride may not be a band-defining or era-encapsulating double LP, but it is a positive step forward for a group that could have with little difficulty kept doing what it was doing. And if in its unique way Vampire Weekend is capable of making its own White Album, maybe it's still on the path to its Abbey Road.