I have a theory that most music critics have had leads for Vampire Weekend’s third album already written for three years: “Some Oxford Comma reference or a derisive jab at hipster ivy league grads that wear boat shoes followed by why or why not Vampire Weekend’s predictable or experimental Third Album sounds good or bad.” When I gave Modern Vampires a listen, I very much repressed any opinions I had of Vampire Weekend and Contra because I hate reviews that only reference an artist’s previous projects/styles. That turned out more difficult than expected. I noticed an obvious departure from its one-note earlier work, yet that departure seems so blatant and purposeful that a discussion that avoids Vampire Weekend’s first two indie pop albums seems incomplete. That said, Modern Vampires stands incredibly well on its own. Stylistically urbane and paradoxically bleak throughout, Modern Vampires makes up for what I thought lacked on Vampire Weekend and Contra: diversity.
Modern Vampires explores more themes than VW’s first two college-centric records did. And it does so with different sounds. Vampire Weekend experiment with pitch-shifted vocals and warbley strings that induce a slick, cinematic quality. “Diane Young,” a gritty rigmarole of a tune, channels 70s folk rock a la Paul Simon before glitchy monster vocals propel it into 2013. “Hudson,” a beautifully dark dirge about Henry Hudson’s death, employs machine-gun drums, a choir (although I can’t tell if real or just a keyboard), glitchy electronics, woodwinds, and more pitch-shifted moans. “Step,” my favorite song on here, takes cues from arrhythmic hip-hop and baroque pop. Throughout Modern Vampires, Vampire Weekend reminds jangle-heads of Murmur-era R.E.M. updated for a time in which hip-hop sounds soft and indie pop sounds hip-hop.
When Modern Vampires shines, it shines a polished silver, yet a handful of tracks seem unremarkable and unmemorable. I still forget what opener “Obvious Bicycle,” second track “Unbelievers,” and deep cut “Hannah Hunt” sound like. Overall, I dig what Vampire Weekend has created with Modern Vampires. Ambition always exceeds execution for me, and this record certainly drives Vampire Weekend into new territory. I hope its next record extends further outside of its comfort-zone without betraying its signature sincerity and playfulness.
Vampire Weekend introduced themselves to me by way of a bus ride. On the way to the Target Center to watch our high school boy’s basketball team play in the state finals, I and another freshman listened to “M79” over and over again. A sunny day, no school, the yellow bus sometimes bouncing that way where you leave your seat momentarily—mirroring at one point a vocal bump in the song—it was the closest I’d ever come to caring about high school sports.
For all the subtle ways VW could have worked their ways into my heart, they didn’t. Listening again to “M79” today, I remember the feeling but it’s separate from me, lost. The memory’s shape is there, but the experience has been decanted. And I never got much into Contra. At best, I could have said VW was a band who made one pleasant afro-poppy record when I was most musically vulnerable, and afterwards…
It’s hard to overestimate how much this album surprised me.
Modern Vampires of The City has pretty much shaken off the afro-pop that grooved through Vampire Weekend and Contra, but it has also shaken off something that pockmarked those two albums: callowness. I never got the sense that songs like “Campus,” “Oxford Comma,” and “Horchata” were collegiate—I did get the sense that they were young—and time has proven that college is not the sunny, breezy place where people spill kefir on their keffiyehs.
College, thus far, seems more like “Step,” where, “wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth” and “Age is an honor, it’s still not the truth.” It seems a bit like the cover of Modern Vampires, in lieu of the resplendent chandelier of their self-titled or the spaced out femme of Contra: mist-shrouded, monochrome, monolithic, but teeming with color not captured in the picture.
Something I grew to really like about this album, surprisingly, was whatever biz Ezra Koenig’s doing with his voice in “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey,” among others. Younger me would’ve been appalled, and when I first heard it, I had that squeamish feeling you get when you’ve heard too much Auto-Tune for one lifetime. Unlike Auto-Tune though, his vocal effects don’t feel they’re artificially manipulative. They’re compellingly manipulative. And even if it’s not Ezra’s “real” voice, so what? Sounds are impostures, as Stephen Dedalus says.
Also, I have to admire some of the homophonous puns Koenig makes in some songs, like “Diane Young’s” take on “dying young” and that line from “Hannah Hunt”: “Though we live on the U.S. dollar/you and me, we’ve got our own sense of time.”
Finally, I like the vibe I get from the spoken word bits in songs like “Finger Back” and “Ya Hey.” I feel like they’re pieces from a New Hollywood film.
Quibble: much as I love random, pretty one-minute songs, I don’t know how well “Young Lion” works as a closer. I feel like it would have worked better in the middle before “Everlasting Arms” or “Finger Back.”