Album Review: Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

The first sign was was the announcement in the New York Times classifieds—the words “Modern Vampires of the City” in the Lost & Found section. After five years of popularity and occasional critical dismissal, after the self-titled buzzy debut and “Contra” and “Peter Gabriel” and “Louis Vuitton,” revealing the third album’s title with a square of text in the paper of record was something that was just so Vampire Weekend. Self-referential enough to get people excited, but not self-mocking.* A cute little wink at everybody.

But someone named Hannah Hunt rips up the New York Times halfway through “Modern Vampires of the City.” She uses it to start a fire on a freezing beach in California while Ezra Koenig is out buying his own kindling. “If I can’t trust you, then damn it, Hannah/There’s no future, there’s no answer,” Koenig yelps when he returns and the quiet piano and bass make themselves unsubtle. “Hannah Hunt” is a showstopper, not only for its musical poignancy, but for its significance as the moment when the paper of record goes up in flames, when shamans wheedle their way into your relationship, when nature trumps the news, when the big things like Love and Faith and Fear Of Death actually start to threaten your peace of mind.

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This probably sounds pretty heavy, man. After all, there’s a reason why everyone reads “The Catcher in the Rye” but fewer people bother with the mysticism of “Franny and Zooey”—it’s less fun, right? Don’t despair if your personal sense of spirituality only extends to pointing at the Bible in your hotel room and giggling—this is not a record that takes the Love and Faith and Fear Of Death and makes it all seem horrible and humorless. “Modern Vampires” pulls off a neat trick where, despite all the references to men of faith and Babylon and Zion and whatnot, you can choose to ignore them and instead pay attention to Koenig’s jungle gym of a voice. Or to Rostam Batmanglij’s arrangements, which all sound so satisfying that they practically have nutritional value.

Listening to this album, I keep thinking of the harpsichord** solo that breaks up the Beatles’s “In My Life.” Not only because that kind of elaborate piano work is all over the album—check out the mini Baroque symphony backing up Koenig’s musings about time and death on “Don’t Lie”—but because the “In My Life” solo was a welcome respite from John Lennon’s death-referencing elegy. Likewise, here the musical richness and tricks of production relieve us from the preoccupation with heavy shit. Afraid of dying young? Here’s the word “baby,” distorted by hilarious vocal effects until its singer sounds like a robotic Elvis.

The post-grad nonchalance of Vampire Weekend’s sound has matured into something controlled and exuberant. You can hear it in the surf rock density of “Diane Young,” the gorgeous melty synth-and-bass flow of “Everlasting Arms,” the echoing nod to hip hop on “Step.” It’s there in the minor key spareness of “Hudson,” the penultimate track, a mournful portrait of post-apocalyptic New York City. Whether that apocalypse arose from environmental destruction (“The river’s rise told Riverside to change their names again”) or some sort of horrible gentrification-spurred revolution (“The first established real estate/Is lost in time like all the crimes that won this pleasant land”) is unclear; we only have Koenig’s mumble over skittering snares and horror movie violins.

Afraid of dying young? Here’s the word “baby,” distorted by hilarious vocal effects until its singer sounds like a robotic Elvis.

Oh, and the ticking clock. The composer Nico Muhly, writing about the MNDR song “I Go Away” in The Paris Review, remarked, “I wish there were a more poetic way to describe the rhythmic passage of time than “tick tock.” Vampire Weekend has found that poetry in “Modern Vampires,” but it isn’t in the clock that sneaks onto “Hudson.” “I want to know, does it bother you?/The low click of a ticking clock,” Koenig sings on “Don’t Lie.” You caught me, Ezra. It does bother me when I hear it. I’d rather it get drowned out.

No, the poetry of the passage of time is in the brevity of a three-minute pop song like “Unbelievers,” a constant blast of brightness that belies the doubt snaking through. Short, sweet, terrified: you love, you say a little grace, and time runs out. Bands used to have to limit their singles to four minutes so they’d fit on 78s. It was the musical equivalent of a human being trying to do everything he wants to do before he dies. Vampire Weekend are writing and playing music as if they’re still constrained to those limitations of time—as if they’re beating back mortality, hanging onto the edge of the vinyl, unwilling to drop off without conquering the grooves. And they’ve never sounded better.

*If it had been truly self-mocking, it’d have been hidden somewhere in the Styles section.
**It wasn’t actually a harpsichord, but rather a piano recorded at half speed, played back twice as fast and an octave higher.

Photo by Soren Solkaer Starbird