Listening to ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’ you start to recognise what a singularly odd band Vampire Weekend are. Their first two full-lengths have sold nearly 1.2 million combined copies, yet theirs was always a sound delightfully out of sync with everything else. This third album opens with ‘Obvious Bicycle’, whose percussion sounds like someone jumping up and down on a pogo stick. You wouldn’t put it past them that it’s not. It’s an album where weird flourishes are the norm: whether it’s ghostly choirs, elephant herd blasts of horns or frog choruses. There’s also Ezra Koenig’s pitch-shifted Elvis-like curled lip vocal delivery on ‘Diane Young’. And later there’s the spoken word narrative on the, up until then frantic, ‘Finger Back’.
But then Vampire Weekend have always followed their own idiosyncratic path. They create their own world, cherry -picking elements from different genres, cultures and times; making them their own. You always thought there was something more in them, something less arch and which aims for the heart as much as it does the head. This is that record; it delivers in every way. It’s been three years since ‘Contra’ and the passage of time seems to be something that’s been on the band’s mind.
As you could imagine with a release focused on time, this is a more grown up collection of songs. It’s certainly more emotionally developed. Whereas in the past, if there’s one thing you could have levelled at Vampire Weekend, it’s that there was no emotional resonance, that everything felt a little too detached. Here they’ve created an album which mixes their sonic trickery with a beating heart.
The double side single they released shows both. ‘Diane Young’ is a million miles an hour, hyperactive, cardboard box percussion monster. But it’s ‘Step’ which really stands out, both rich and muted, a sepia-filtered doo-wop track with harpsichord and piano giving a splendour to Koenig’s observations. Lyrically it shows the focus of the album: that of holding on to youth and growing up. “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth,” he acutely observes. There are references to Croesus and Jandek but it’s the emotional fragility and poignant contemplation that are at the core of the song. “I can’t do it alone,” he gracefully swoons, and it’s heartbreaking.
This understated emotion is shown most brilliantly on ‘Hannah Hunt’. Beautifully melancholic, it’s built on a gorgeous piano melody and delicate vocals. It’s a touching capturing of a moment in time. ‘Obvious Bicycle’ blooms magnificently, a choral chorus that sounds like a sunrise, with twinkling piano underneath while the Outkast shout-out of ‘Ya Hey’ is a slower affair than its namesake as Koenig sings “America don’t love you” with cartoon character backing vocals and a Pet Shop Boys-style choir before it fades away to nothing and emerges again riding on the wave of a piano.
But what makes this album is that they haven’t forgotten to match this intellect and emotion with giddy, unabashed fun and mile-wide smiling. They throw everything at it and pull it off. There’s more of everything: more ideas, more odd time signatures, more weird vocal effects – and it’s all boldly beautiful. You can’t say they’ve not challenged themselves, but they’ve maintained the spirit of their sound. The result is a record which pulls off the trick that many fail at: it’s the right amount of the old Vampire Weekend and the right amount of bold experimentation.
As we finish with the desolate but hopeful ‘Young Lion’, we’ve arrived at the album’s core focus: time. Its passing weighs heavily, and Koenig acutely observes the frustrations and hopes that come with it. It makes ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’ their most complete record. Full of heart and full of ideas, it’s big, clever and brilliantly odd.
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