The latest delivery by New York City natives, Vampire Weekend, has shocked critics, surprised long-time fans and entertained new listeners, since its release on May 14, 2013. This is the band’s third studio album and has received critical acclaim, reaching number 1 on Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of 2013. The album, titled Modern Vampires of the City, has been their most successful release to date.
The band was formed in 2006 by members Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Tomson and Christ Baio. They met while enrolled at Columbia University. The found the band out of a mutual love for African music and punk rock, and chose the name Vampire Weekend from the title of a short film that lead singer, Ezra Koenig, worked on. They have since released three studio albums (Vampire Weekend, Contra and Modern Vampires of the City) and topped various charts world wide with singles like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Cousins. At first they were perceived to be privileged, ivy-league students that easily gain success because of their comfortable upbringing. These views were quickly proven wrong as their music started evolving beyond the familiar electronic sounds that fans had gotten used to.
On Contra, they address issues around ‘first world guilt’ and how privilege and wealth in indie music should not be criticized, but rather welcomed and appreciated. They also hail from various cultural backgrounds, having Ukrainian, Persian, Italian and Hungarian heritages. This contributes greatly to their World Music influences and general variety in their sound.
Koenig has written most of the lyrical material for the band, with contributions from Batmanglij. His personal disposition is most noticeable in the lyrical content for Modern Vampires. This is the bands most religious album to date and refers a lot to Koenig’s Jewish heritage. The most prevalent themes are of mortality, adult responsibility, faith, and the inevitable nature of fading youth. As much as the members of Vampire Weekend have grown up, their music has followed.
The album’s first single, “Ya Hey” explores the nature of God from the perspective of a Jewish boy trying to understand both his own mistakes, as well as the mistakes of the world. The title is a play on one of the jewish names for God, Yahweh, which is, according to jewish culture, not to be spoken out loud. This might be why Koenig chose to obfuscate the name of God, but still use it as much as possible in a obviously blasphemous attempt to contact God. The song is full of biblical imagery, quoting the story of Moses where God is speaking to him from a burning bush, saying ‘I am that I am’.
“Ya Hey” and other tracks like “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You” directly talk about God’s influence on the world, or rather the perceived lack of influence. Some might see the lyrics as being critical of God, but the lyricist tends to ask many important questions, like ‘Why does God let people make mistakes?’, ‘Why does God need worship?’ and ‘Why does God hide himself?’. The questions also seem to come from a place of humility, evident in “Ya Hey” when Koenig sings ‘I can’t help but feel, that I made some mistakes…’. He also sings about how he can see God’s ‘glowing face’ in his life, but still can’t comprehend the nature of God.
Musically, the album is nicely packaged between two easy chamber pop numbers, “Obvious Bicycle” and “Young Lion.” The rest of the album follows an interesting trend of growth, from youthful abandon in Unbelievers, to slow piano jams on “Hannah Hunt”, to the highly catchy, but challenging, “Ya Hey.” “Step” talks about various geographical locations, ranging from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to the Angkor Wat, and the variety in musical influences reflect the global nature of the track. They sample hip hop artists Souls of Michief and YZ, and their songs “Step to my Girl” and “Who’s That Girl”, at various places in the song. This reinforces the singer’s plea to the world to embrace his ‘girl’. The interesting use of light weight electronic keys over a rigid hip hop beat adds further to the diversity of the song.
Vocally, Koenig is the strongest on “Hannah Hunt”, the highly autobiographical track in the middle of the album. The song features sad, flowing electronic slides, underlining Koenig’s beautiful crooning as he sings about love and lost relationships. Halfway through the song, the slow pace is broken by a exploding piano riff, followed by an angst-filled Koenig pleading to his love.
Throughout the album, Vampire Weekend contemplate their maturity and mortality, but still balance that with youthful sounds and devil-may-care approaches to love and life. If anything, this is an album about balance and growth, something that has not been seen in previous Vampire Weekend albums, but is sure to be seen on future work.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings, 2013)