Vampire Weekend has been gone for awhile. A while, I say, as though it’s been more than half a decade… And that’s because it has. After six years they’re finally coming back with new music. However, today’s review isn’t concerned with that. Instead, we’re going to go back six years and see what all the fuss was about. Their third album, Modern Vampires of The City, was released on May 14th, 2013. The album was certified gold and even won a Grammy. Yet, one might feel it’s easily their least talked about album.
Perhaps, this is because of the form.
To say Vampire Weekend is rooted in academia would be an understatement. Lead singer and songwriter Ezra Koenig along with several other members of the band all studied at Columbia. Koenig was an English Major, and the album makes no effort in hiding that. In fact, one might argue the album is simultaneously their least and most rooted album in academia. There’s no mentions of sprawling campuses or diplomat’s having affairs (as per Contra, their sophomore album), but the influence is there all the same. “Diane Young” and “White Sky” both take it on in different ways. “Diane Young” incorporates Godard’s black-comedy film Weekend, the Kennedy assassination, Greek mythology, and Robert Frost. “Hannah Hunt” tackles its own medley of topics with allusions to The Great Gatsby, Van Gogh, the U.S. economy, and borrowed names from women in a punk band from San Francisco.
Songs like “Finger Back” and “Yah Hey” are riddled with even more layered references to religion, war, and politics. The album, at times, feels like a small, musical snippet of Ulysses. The process of listening to it goes like this: Listen. Don’t understand what’s going on. Google. Confront the Oxford English Dictionary. Listen again. Find another T. S. Eliot reference. Go back to PoetryFoundation.org. Check the stock market report in 2013. Listen again. Repeat.
My point is: like a well written piece of fiction, the lyrics oscillate between absurd and brilliant. One could easily write a bibliography of Koenig’s lyrical ideas. As an English major, this isn’t only refreshing, but influential. When listening to this album, you feel nothing is too bizarre for popular music—Shakespeare, The War of The Roses, and A Room with A View? These aren’t merely materials that belong on dusty school shelves, but as powerful fodder for new concepts to explore on an album.
Musically, the album can be described as experimental. Voice modulation occurs on several tracks, adding layers, conversational, spiritual, and downright menacing to the vocal tracks. On “Obvious Bicycle,” the drums often sound like an approaching train. That technique coupled with the phrase “You better spare your face the razor/because no one’s gonna spare the time for you” makes for an impactful juxtaposition. “Hudson” becomes spectacularly daunting because of the sound of a watch ticking down in the left ear for the duration of most of the track. The track tells a story of Henry Hudson/post-apocalyptic New York, and also tackles immigration policy. As if the lyrics “the lines are drawn, the map is such a drag/all you who changed your stripes can wrap me in the flag” weren’t heavy enough, the instrumentals won’t dare let you forget.
What makes the album different than its predecessors is the force of post-modernism that works behind each song, coherently tying them all together. Alluring and bold, Modern Vampires of The City refuses to be dumbed down, or pepped into Western optimism. Both music and lyrics are perfectly congruent with the grainy, black and white photo on the cover: a fog-covered candid of the top of Manhattan. And while it’s impossible to tell where their career will go, one thing’s for sure—the test of time still stands. Their third album is as solid as a college textbook.