Vampire Weekend has finally risen from the perils of that idling stage young bands usually fall prey to after touring a well received second album. They’ve risen with a vengeance this time around with Modern Vampires of the City, showing earlier critics what they failed to see and cementing their spots as VIPs in the genre of Indie Rock, flaunting that in-your-face type of grit classier than anyone else.
Fresh from Columbia University, they waltzed into the music scene circa 2006, clad in Ralph Lauren and boat shoes with a spring in their steps. They took the indie scene by storm with intercontinental melodies, inside jokes embedded in their lyrics, and their affinity to anything preppy.
Save for their choice of musical direction, the entire thing at the time was satirical role-playing, serving as the reflections of a society that tied them down, and a culture they were struggling to outgrow. But they liked playing along, and didn’t mind being misunderstood because of it. And right before the rest became history, their “Upper west side Soweto” vibe reeled in an audience they didn’t expect to receive after the hasty backlash they were surrounded with in their earlier days.
It took a while for them, however, to recover from that overwhelming response. Three years and four months to be exact. But it was all worth the wait in the end.
Modern Vampires of the City is a mirage that makes you do a double take multiple times over. The album title, to start with, makes you wonder if they’ve lost their spunky creativity—what’s a better way than self-referencing to prove that? But you argue again that this time, they’ve strayed from their usual Polaroid album art and decided on the murky skyline of The Big Apple from 1966, so they must have gained some creativity. Then you take it from that cue and remember that the boys have a penchant for riddles, and you begin to understand that the gloomy skyline curtained with smoke is a metaphor of the dark and unsettling themes this album holds in its core.
It opens urgently, quickly like you can’t spare any more time. But the melody that comes with “Obvious Bicycle” is tamed, slow and isn’t imposing. It’s almost reminiscent of their sophomore album’s final track, which was surprisingly mellow, and you believe it must be an intentional juxtaposition. But Koenig (vocals) prods you to listen, just as he sings those lyrics. “Listen, don’t wait,” he says, and you do. After all, when did Vampire Weekend employ this much classical piano over their African guitar expertise?
As you stick around, you become restless, straining to hear the Afropop that has toned down, the vague references that are now sporadic, and the muffled singing that went with that raw recorded-in-my-childhood-bedroom vibe. Koenig learned to enunciate (and has since improved his Paul Simon vocals), probably for the benefit of a message with a broader scope (and heavier bearing) as opposed to the pretentious collegiate culture, moneyed love, the oxford commas, or Cape Cod referencing that we’ve heard before.
Recurring harpsichord harmonies, strong bass lines, excited staccato drumming, vocal reverbs, and the spoken word bridges are a handful of developments to take in, and it slowly becomes clear that the Soweto influence has slowly worn off. But you find yourself welcoming the new sound anyway—there’s something about it, but you can’t quite put your finger on it yet—and with the transitions from one song to another so smooth that it could pass as an original film score, you mindlessly welcome the haunting lyrics, too.
“Diane Young” serves as the upbeat neutralizer to an otherwise mellow first half of the album, with its lyrics already hinting on wordplay. You crack the riddle when the next song comes, yet another mid-tempo song, “Don’t Lie”. Lyricist Koenig opens up about his reservations on mortality, singing, “Does it bother you? The low click of a ticking clock. There’s a headstone right in front of you and everyone I know.”
You’re caught off-guard when you finally hear the tragic reality of these pseudo-romantic songs, and you realize that graver matters concern the band now (time on earth, fate, and ultimately, death) which all inevitably lead to the second half of the album where they pointedly tackle religion. You become disoriented, which will make you quickly conclude that perhaps the intentional change was done at the expense of their own nuance. You begin to wonder how they lost the subtle distinction that has placed them on the map the moment they introduced themselves into the scene.
That is, until you hear “Finger Back” and momentarily mistake it for “California English“. And you think back and notice that “Step” eerily sounds like “M79″. Go back again, and you realize that “Ya Hey” could have sounded like “Horchata” save for the “chipmunk vocals”. You listen hard, and your instincts tell you this isn’t the first time you’ve heard these glossy Baroque arrangements from them.
And suddenly out of nowhere, you’re impressed.
These hooksmiths did it again. They’ve allowed their listeners to grapple with a light concept (nostalgia, it seems) in order to deal with heavier themes, disorienting them and taking them to a faraway world – farther away from the proverbial Cape Cod – and then plunging them back down to a cleaner slate so that what they have to say can be heard. Absolutely refreshing on a whole different level.
Modern Vampires of the City is a mirage until it isn’t anymore. It might be worlds away from what their first two albums were like (or grounded on, for that matter), but all three albums are inherently linked. If not by melody or approach, then by the way each song held a story, and how each story succeeded the other. And as you listen to the Bach-inspired interlude “Young Lion” calmly asking you to “take your time”, you can’t help but feel this renewed sense of elation as you listen to Walcott finally fleeing Cape Cod and hear these Ivy League Peter Pans finally grow up.