Never quite understood the backlash. Besides being completely unfounded (the band attended their fancy Ivy League school on scholarships and every member had student loans) it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Wasn’t a half-cut, unbothered, overclass aura what made The Strokes so damn fashionable and popular? Nobody batted a glitter-covered eyelash when LMFAO ejaculated sparkling wine over each other as the Dow plummeted like so many champagne showers. Perhaps the problem was that, while Vampire Weekend isn’t actually a group of blithe, over-privileged WASPs (unlike LMFAO who were, except for the WASP part), they certainly look the part – four fashionable post-collegiates in possession of non-threatening good looks and intellects that consider it becoming to reference horchata and Oxford commas in pop songs. New album Modern Vampires Of The City might be the one to obliterate this image for good though. Wait, obliterate? No. Nix. That’s much more apposite.
The album is replete with atmospherics — the onomatopoeia of the city, angelic choirs, field recordings, schizophrenic pitch-shifting, orchestral furnishings, reverberating stutters, ingenious uses of white noise and even an 808. “The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out”, sings Ezra Koenig on Step. He’s smart enough to intend on double entendre. Hell, the guy alludes to Croesus, Angkor Watt and Walkmans in that same song. He also finds a rhythm at once rap and lullaby and a cadence, simultaneously worldly-wise and worldweary.
Even the album’s more buoyant numbers are far from the Holiday-type trifle that was so agreeable on the previous two records. “Irish and proud, baby, naturally / But you got the luck of a Kennedy” Koenig sings on Diane Young, the same song that features makeshift horn arrangements (by way of synth), a dancey beat and a “baby, baby, baby” hook. Subject matter? A live-fast-die-young girlie who torches a Saab. And while Koenig appreciates her free spirit, it’s probably best he find a nice girl from a nice family: “You know I love the past, ’cause I hate suspense”.
Because the band were always more Paul Simon than Talking Heads, the narration comes from the emotional thick of the subject matter. There’s no formalist posturing, as can be the case with anyone too educated for their own good. “I took your council and came to ruin / Leave me to myself, lead me to myself” sings Koenig on Everlasting Arms. The pitch-shifting is getting a little tired and it proves that inflection does not a melody make, but it’s spectacular in the way it makes the morose so jaunty. Worship You is wide-eyed and charging, carrying the album’s themes of God without religion, memories without a past, a city without borders and patriotism without hostility – themes that, if you really wanna be a Freudian prick about the whole thing, all allude to connection. Koenig and his bandmates are entering the age bracket where that’s a precious commodity, and something can only be precious if it’s scarce. “The time has come / The clock is such a drag / All you who changed your stripes can wrap me in the flag” is then counter-pointed with “The lines are drawn / The map is such a drag / All you who changed your stripes can wrap me in the flag”. Forget nixing, the Vampire Weekend of old has disappeared like an old you.
The album cover is a Neal Boenzi photo depicting the smoggiest day in New York City history, a day on which the air killed 169 people. Boenzi’s black-and-white snap of an NYC awash in a noxious haze before a hauntingly blank horizon lends an eery quality to the words “Vampire Weekend”. The thick, white block lettering that sits atop the photo as it did with both the self-titled debut (2008) and Contra (2010) is now the earmarking of an entirely different band, one that is considering time and mortality and poeticising it in ways only the products of a top-quality liberal arts education can manoeuvre.
But these guys are also smart enough to know that they’re not going to learn everything from the assigned readings. Far from it. Just hope they cleared the cover art this time.