Review Summary: When I was young, I was told I’d find one rich man in ten has a satisfied mind, and I’m the one.
What it means to be sincere and what it means to be ironic has changed in the years since Alanis Morrisette sang about it. When Vampire Weekend started, that song was only ten years old. Now, hundreds of thinkpieces, millions of sales, and one very influential aesthetic later, "Ironic" is old enough to drink and start a pretentious but well-intended band with its rich college friends. At this point, its life is long enough for it to write a songbook. And they did. Vampire Weekend
was a debut that shook the world, Contra
was a refining step towards a more mature future, and Modern Vampires of the City
was a messy, angsty and lovely mainstream success. Through these projects, a new sincerity has risen from their guarded origins, emotion first hidden, then leaking out, then covering everything. Lyrically, it's always been hard to tell what they're talking about (a notion only confirmed by lead songwriter Ezra Koenig's very odd social media personality, dismissing any hopes anything was literal), but musically, more and more feeling crept in. Their initial success bred off of the controversy over whether or not they were really
bragging about being rich, and whether that was ok, and the just-a-little-too-early announcements that this meant rock was dead. But what kept them in the conversation after that boiled over were the songs that touched people’s hearts, even when we still didn't really know what anything meant. It didn't matter, because we all knew someone who was giving up the gun, someone we could never love, in spite of everything. It was too beautiful to not feel anything.
Father of the Bride
bucks this trend. The words Ezra sings are ones any listener could apply to their lives without an Ivy League education, but the notes played are ones that ultimately won’t resonate with that many people. These are, for the most part, simple songs, ones that sound more like the moods you have as you walk around your house or take a walk to the park. Virtually all traces of intense emotion have been erased, replaced with pleasant ditties and relatable circumstantial moods. As a result, this is the most guarded Vampire Weekend has sounded since their debut. This is not something for those who are hurt and looking for a space to cope with it, but something for those looking for a fun Saturday morning soundtrack. At times, it seems like it's breaking into something more - the stretch from gorgeous highlight "Unbearably White" to aching ballad "My Mistake" swells the heart, and is immediately interrupted by the frustratingly upbeat "Sympathy" - which literally opens with the line "I think I take myself too serious," as if to poke fun at their past. It's telling that they're teasing themselves instead of the entire world, and combined with this newfound peace and stability, it's clear that they're more mature. In creating an album for those who are secure, they have certainly satisfied much of their fanbase, the part that grew up with them, learning about them from blogs in 2008 in their college dorms. Their newer, younger and therefore more emotionally volatile group, the 13-year-olds who cried to Modern Vampires
on Tumblr in 2014, aren't likely to get as much out of it. If I wasn't clear there, that's not an insult to people who don't like this (if I have to discriminate against an age, I'd much rather target 30-somethings), just an explanation of what this album has that their previous work hasn't - consistency, manners and quiet - and what it's lost - passion, fire and tears.
Regardless of where listeners fit into my probably overly-presumptuous groups, or which of those trios of adjectives sound more appealing to you, none of it matters if Father
just doesn't sound good. Far too many indie bands that broke in the 2000s have lost appeal in the past few years because they've stopped making music that interests audiences. Thankfully, there's plenty to capture attention here. Influences have expanded yet again, Ezra clearly likes music of various shades. There are three country-esque duets with Danielle Haim scattered throughout, apparently inspired by Golden Hour
, and likely something to do with Chris Tomson and Chris Baio's previous band, Midnight Hours. Sampled artists include the highly influential Haruomi Hosono, famously intense Hans Zimmer and genre-blending iLoveMakonnen. Unlike pretty much any other album with all these ideas crammed in, it's not some inaccessible experimental LP. Studio trickery still makes for the occasional weird moment, with some sputtering vocal bits and pauses and odd instrumental choices, especially on the goofy "How Long," but these mostly just lead to an expanded palate backtracking these fun songs. The Steve Lacy-featuring single "Sunflower" is a bright spot in an already warm album, with a silly sing-song bassline vocalization section that is sure to extend any good mood, if not create one. "Rich Man" has a lo-fi production that sounds like "Young Lion" shed any trace of sadness and started playing with its pack. Even the weirder tracks like the slow, mostly instrumental "2021" are over before they overstay any welcome. Production is handled by mostly Ezra himself and previous collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid, as well as the frequently overlooked BloodPop, hip-hop mastermind DJ Dahi, and ex-member Rostam Batmanglij, among others. These pop-minded artists help keep this 18-track creation from becoming unwieldy, a double album under an hour. It's nice. Whether or not it stands up to the emotional peaks of their discography, it's still enjoyable.
That being said, it's hard not to feel like there's still something missing here. It's fine, but the little touches of beauty and depth are almost more frustrating to hear than if it just gave up entirely. Here's a quote from the Contra
era, discussing its album art: "The picture is from 1983, but the last album cover was from 2006, and they kind of look like they both inhabit the same world. When we saw this image, we just found it very striking … we were immediately struck by it, and we all had our own interpretations of what her look was, but we just kind of felt like it fit the album and the theme of it. It made sense to me that the first album had an inanimate object on it, and this one has a person's face on it." This extreme effort is reflected in the next project, which expanded its scope a bit and fell into the past that it referenced. Technically, this one expands as well. Now, it's a literal world - but not a serious one, just an obnoxious graphic. It's playful, appealing and wholesome, but not much else. This may just be album art, but the look has always been central to Vampire Weekend. Image is important to them because it's all important. This is the moment they stopped taking themselves seriously, and the reason it still at least mildly succeeds is because they took that change seriously. There’s sincerity to their agreeableness, but a cruel irony in a band becoming what the world thought it was from the beginning.