Review Summary: Listening to Modern Vampires of the City feels like listening to something important.
Why hasn’t Vampire Weekend failed yet? They released their self-titled debut in 2008 to great critical acclaim. In the years between 2008 and the 2010 release of Contra their reputation grew to be that of one-album-wonders, with many many many people growing tired of the preppy and constantly upbeat debut that had been adopted by teen mall-shoppers. It had become common among the hipper-than-thou music community to believe that the band had no substance whatsoever. So while waiting for Contra to be released, interest became less in how they were going to keep fresh and more in how they were going to fall flat on their faces. However, upon the release of the album, it received just as much critical acclaim as their debut, if not more.
Contra became regarded as a small step up from the debut, featuring a more expansive sound that, while keeping true to the “substanceless” joy of previous, managed to also make a couple of strides that allowed the band’s sound to stay fresh. But again, the band was soon seen as nothing more than mindless fun for youngsters unfamiliar with the work of Paul Simon. I even began to think, “Vampire Weekend is just catchy and fun and as long as they keep that up I’ll listen to it regardless of whether or not they have any substance,” and that was my highest expectation coming into the newest album. But to my surprise, listening to Modern Vampires of the City, feels like listening to something important, which is something I’ve never felt while listening to past Vampire Weekend albums.
Modern Vampires brings with it a new dimension for Vampire Weekend. The most noticeable difference between “old” Vampire Weekend and new is the fact that they are playing slower songs. The speed of their first two albums is what drew people to them; they were quick and catchy. Bringing slower songs into the mix would worry anybody who doesn’t believe in Koenig and co.’s ability to progress in musical style. Playing slow songs in the same style (both musically and lyrically) of past Vampire Weekend albums would be a treacherous task. Realizing this, Vampire Weekend adapted as they saw fit. Gone are the shrugged off references to Cape Cod and the like. Instead, the lyrics are now about things like spirituality. This growth in lyrical maturity dictates the sound and the speed of the songs. With lyrical matter built from references to places like Cape Cod, it isn’t necessary to spend time allowing the themes to grow; but with newer spiritual lyrics in songs like “Worship You,” a song that sounds so familiarly churchy, and “Ya Hey,” a personal and absolute favorite that gives off a relatable sense of disillusionment, they finally have a reason to change their dynamic.
The song that best represents this growth is “Hannah Hunt,” which very well might be the most accomplished Vampire Weekend song released to date. It begins with some fuzz, a lone piano, and Ezra Koenig’s softly-sung voice. The further along the song goes, the more elements enter. After two minutes, a bass guitar, the patting of drums, and some harmony in the vocals can be heard. As the third minute of the song is entered, some sort of piano/guitar solo raises the song up with the addition of prominently banged drums. The glue that holds this together is the risen vocals of Ezra, which become more shouty than softly-sung. The song grows into a true climax that best embodies the growth of the band on this album.
“Unbelievers” is a song on the album worth noting due to its ability to mesh the spiritual theme into a catchy love song that reminds us that the Cape Cod-era Vampy Weeks is still there. This song possesses a Buddy Holly rockabilly kind of vibe that drives it, much like what occurs during “Diane Young” as well. Musically, there is no greater treat than the ending of the song “Don’t Lie” which features a short, nostalgic guitar outro that has the wavering sound of an old vinyl record. Also of note is “Hudson,” a pseudo-closing track that contradicts everything we’ve known Vampire Weekend to be. It is dark and haunting, and its lyrics discuss death. When horns emerge near the midway point of the song, they only plunge the song further into the depths of some Westerny, circus nightmare, and it works in favor of the band as it adds another component to their sound.
And now to return to the opening question: Why hasn’t Vampire Weekend failed yet? Everybody is waiting for it, preparing themselves. The months following new Vampire Weekend releases carry anticipation for their impending crash to earth. After their third release, it is becoming clear that they haven’t failed because they are too good for that. As is evident by their album-by-album progression, they are too talented to simply out themselves as mere indie gimmicks as was previously thought of them. We are watching and hearing a growth from the naïve and collegiate Vampire Weekend on their debut album to the contemplative and mature band we see with the release of Modern Vampires of the City. The public perception of them as an artificial indie-of-the-week band continues to diminish in spite of the public’s almost sick desire to have their beliefs confirmed. With Modern Vampires the question stops being “Why hasn’t Vampire Weekend failed yet?” and becomes a rhetorical “Why are we waiting for Vampire Weekend to fail?” The exponential growth heard on this album forces us to examine that question. Get back to me when you find an adequate answer.