Vampire Weekend 2024
Photo: Michael Schmelling / Nasty Little Man

Vampire Weekend Return to Form While Adding New Wrinkles

Only God Was Above Us demonstrates that melodic, clean guitars are welcome but optional and that Vampire Weekend have plenty of other tricks up their sleeves.

Only God Was Above Us
Vampire Weekend
5 April 2023

Let’s start with the headline. In Only God Was Above Us, Vampire Weekend sound like Vampire Weekend again. Father of the Bride (2019) was a sunny folk-rock record where roughly half of the tracks felt like vocalist Ezra Koenig fronting a different band with Danielle Haim. Not only did guitarist Rostam Batmanglij leave the group before the record, but bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson didn’t play on it either. Only God Was Above Us has plenty of interesting wrinkles, but it’s recognizably connected to what Vampire Weekend did over their first three albums.

The opener, “Ice Cream Piano”, begins with a hint of guitar distortion while Koenig sings harmoniously over a simple acoustic guitar pattern. The second verse brings in quiet piano and more robust sounds of distortion. The third verse finds drummer Tomson entering with his trademark hyperactive snare drum work, and suddenly, the distorted guitars are crashing all over the place. Once it settles, Koenig’s vocal melody is irresistible, while Baio’s tuneful bass provides an excellent counterpoint. In place of a traditional rock guitar solo, the group substitute some high-speed violin, followed by an equally frenetic cello. This is not Vampire Weekend’s first attempt to pull this trick, yet it remains highly effective.

A lot is going on in “Ice Cream Piano”. It’s a kitchen-sink song that throws in various sounds while also being recognizably Vampire Weekend. It also has an obnoxious ending, which is the band’s working method for Only God Was Above Us. Namely, “We will push obnoxious sounds right up to the limit of listeners’ patience while also giving them songs that are catchy and fun.” Again and again on Only God Was Above Us, Vampire Weekend try variations of this trick, and it’s to their credit that they pull it off almost every time.

Having established this, Vampire Weekend immediately put it to the test on “Classical”. Acoustic strumming, light piano chords, and gentle, cymbal-oriented drums accentuate an easygoing melody. Yet the song’s hook is a high-pitched, noisy guitar riff that sounds like an intrusive synth organ. It’s catchy, though, catchy enough to be an integral part of the song once the listener acclimates to it. Vampire Weekend aren’t done, yet, though. The track also features a honking, squealing saxophone solo that isn’t easy on the ears. It’s almost enough to push the song into “annoying” territory, but not quite.

The moments of noisy guitar aren’t isolated events. Koenig’s discovery of distortion pedals is one of the things that consistently sets Only God Was Above Us apart from earlier Vampire Weekend releases. “Prep-School Gangsters” is a mid-tempo track that ebbs and flows and puts Koenig’s pretty vocal melody front and center. It also has a pair of guitars with just a hint of crunch in their tone, showing up to riff alongside the vocals. “Gen-X Cops” takes it further, using a high-pitched, buzzing guitar riff right off the top. The same riff returns mid-song, but it’s interesting that the band refrains from using that sound through the bulk of the track.

“Connect” goes in a different direction, opening with waterfalls of extremely fast but slightly out-of-tune piano notes. The piano goes away for the verses, leaving a constant floor tom beat, catchy upright bass, and static organ chords under Koenig’s vocals. The piano returns for an extended solo mid-song, and its “just a little off” sound is really striking. The post-solo section of the track features more piano arpeggios and little hitches in the sound, where Vampire Weekend intentionally leave audible traces of digital splicing.

“Capricorn” begins as a languid, wistful ballad with a lovely piano break and a solid vocal melody. Tomson, though, is let loose to play some wild fills, perking up the listeners’ ears. About halfway through the song, though, other noisy background sounds creep in, joining Tomson in undermining the track’s gentle feel. The next slow track, “The Surfer”, is mostly free of oddball elements, which is a detriment. Tomson plays a relaxed, hip-hop-style beat while jazzy piano chords drive the verses. A somewhat twangy guitar joins in for the chorus, and occasional swooping French horn notes penetrate the groove. Overall, though, “The Surfer” sticks to a single sort of melancholy mood. However, the vocal melody isn’t particularly strong, and there aren’t enough exciting moments to make it a memorable track.

That isn’t the case for “Mary Boone”, another ballad, but one with an immediately ear-catching melody. Choir voices chant in the background while the organ and slow bass notes provide the rhythmic bed. Another hip-hop style beat pops in occasionally, but that’s solely to give the track some motion when Koenig isn’t singing. “Mary Boone” is a huge standout and a clear follow-up to “Hannah Hunt”, the beloved critical and fan-favorite ballad from Modern Vampires of the City.

“Pravda” might be the most traditional-sounding Vampire Weekend track. It features an extremely long, catchy, clean guitar pattern with simple bass and sparse percussion. Koenig’s voice and somewhat scattered storytelling are front and center here. The refrain, “I’m leaving at the rising of the moon”, but the post-chorus declaration, “And when I come home, it won’t be home to you” is the real gut-punch of the lyrics. As the track nears its end, the group pump up the extra sounds. The last chorus ends in a cloud of audio distortion before it all falls away for one final run through the guitar pattern.

The epic-length closer “Hope” almost justifies its running time at nearly eight minutes. A relaxed, elongated piano riff recurs throughout the track while Koenig returns again and again to the simple melodic refrain, “I hope you let it go.” These two parts are sturdy hooks that stand up to the repetition required to keep the listener engaged over the extended song length. The band add small elements along the way, including a brass section, acoustic, and, eventually, distorted electric guitars. Aside from a bridge, though, the song doesn’t really change much. Its easygoing, midtempo vibe allows the song to float along nicely without getting dull, much like Oasis‘ deceptively long 1990s hit “Champagne Supernova”.

All due respect to Father of the Bride, which has some genuine bangers on it (“Harmony Hall”, “This Life”) and on a relisten was better than I remembered. However, Only God Was Above Us makes that album feel like a one-off experiment. Koenig’s vocals intersect with Baio’s melodic basslines and Tomson’s alternately restrained and unhinged drumming, which is the core Vampire Weekend sound at this point. Only God Was Above Us demonstrates that melodic, clean guitars are welcome but optional and that the band have plenty of other tricks up their sleeves. The obnoxious elements of these songs morph into hooks after a few listens, and the tracks where the band isn’t using those weirdo bits have to work much harder to be memorable. This album may not replace fans’ favorites at the top of the Vampire Weekend rankings, but it shows this band has much more to offer as it approaches its third decade of existence.

RATING 8 / 10