If nothing else, I at least have to give Vampire Weekend this: with the release of their third album Modern Vampires of the City
, they have almost entirely done away with the tired narratives that surrounded their first two (great) albums. No more will you hear about cultural appropriation, polo shirts, and the Ivy League; these discourses have been abolished in favor of one praising the band for their newfound maturity. Intuitively, this seems like great news: the endless speculation around Vampire Weekend’s collective mores and social identity often masked the music underneath, which was at its core breezy and agile indie pop. So the “maturity” that has been pre-packaged with Modern Vampires
--no more oxford commas, kids!--should come as a respite from the onslaught of distasteful tags that used to adorn each new Vampire Weekend release. But in apparently escaping the narrative of class and privilege to which they were so beholden, Ezra Koenig and his crew have simply leaped right into another, this one inviting eager critics to open their reviews lauding Vampire Weekend for “growing up”. This is fine, I guess, but the music of Modern Vampires
suffers quite a bit for its apparent sophistication. For all its external indications of progress, this is a deeply boring album.
“Obvious Bicycle,” the album’s opener, is a portent. The song moves along at a glacial pace, Koenig belting some austere falsetto over a simplistic chord progression. Vampire Weekend have done slow songs before, most notably Contra
’s “Taxi Cab” and “I Think Ur a Contra,” and I am fine with them. But those songs had both momentum and intimacy to them, whereas “Obvious Bicycle” genuinely seems to go nowhere. “Unbelievers” turns the tempo up but with similar results; it has the quickness of a “Holiday” but none of that song’s melodic agility. This is why I consider Vampire Weekend’s maturation to be such a false narrative: the band aren’t critically changing their formula so much as calling back to past successes, a technique bound to have diminishing returns.
Even “Step,” one of two lead singles and probably the most inventive song here, still displays Vampire Weekend’s reliance on tropes. Awkwardly alluding to Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl” (a la “Oxford Comma”’s Lil Jon shout-out: guys, Ezra Koenig likes rap music!) the song is essentially a classical re-interpretation of--shocker--Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”. It also contains as its opening line “Back back, way back, when I used to front like Angkor Wat.” I don’t really know what that means, but I’m sure Koenig wants me to Google it, after which I can also find out that the melody of the chorus is snatched from the sappy ballad “Aubrey” by Bread. This is always how Vampire Weekend has been, ardently corralling visible influence upon visible influence, never ceasing in their all-encompassing search for the most kaleidoscopic indie pop ever. But where their first two albums had the benefit of strong melodies and captivating production, Modern Vampires
has non-entities like “Don’t Stop” and “Everlasting Arms”. The resulting product is a series of references submerged in excessively cool production and left out to dry.
Even the tracks that seem a little warmer don’t reach the heights of past singles like “Cousins” and “A-Punk”. “Finger Back” has to its credit some brilliant verses that finally showcase the athletic pop songwriting we all know Koenig has in him. Even that song manages to fizzle out, however, its chorus unable to support the considerable weight it has been given, its unwieldy production not exactly helping the cause. “Worship You” is certainly sprightly but also completely ridiculous--a clumsy reach-for-the-stars chorus rings disingenuous coming from a band usually so grounded. Only “Hannah Hunt,” the album’s immaculately constructed centerpiece, manages to rise above the mire. The song keeps its volume barely above a whisper for most of its running time until the band decides to take the song to another level, bursting brilliantly into emotional catharsis with Koenig’s impeccably strained voice leading the way. The song is ambitious and perfect--perhaps the best the band has ever done.
It’s really too bad, then, that Modern Vampires
couldn’t have been a more interesting--or easily definable--failure. As it stands, it’s just another Vampire Weekend album, except the songs are less catchy and more sterile this time around. I am loath to slot it into a pre-determined chronicle of The Vampire Weekend Story because it seems to me like mediocrity of the most pedestrian variety. The band sought to write a great album and instead came out with a merely okay one. It happens. The hype train is nonetheless already rolling; some people who previously disliked Vampire Weekend will like this, most people who liked the other albums will like it too, Pitchfork will drop a solid 9.0, and everyone will go home happy. But the twenty or so listens I’ve spent on this record are beginning to feel like a waste of time, a whole bunch of ”Why isn’t this good"!”
pleading with no real response. That may be some essential part of growing up, both for the band and myself. But I reserve the right to remain disappointed.