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Looking Back on ‘Modern Vampires of the City,' a Good-Faith Album for the Faithless

Modern Vampires of the City album cover
Five years ago on May 14, Vampire Weekend released “Modern Vampires of the City.” It was their third album—and they finally didn’t sound like they were doing a bit.

Yes, their self-titled debut (2008) and “Contra” (2010) featured witty and sometimes sincere lyrics on their instantly-lovable tracks like “Oxford Comma,” “Campus,” and “Holiday.” But their lyrics have never been the problem. As if desperate to prove to their appropriation-wary critics that they didn’t need to borrow from Afropop, they changed styles for a consciously hyper-eclectic West-Coast-indie approach on their second album. Although their forays into ska, synthpop, speed-rap, and rave met critical and commercial success, they also gave the impression that Vampire Weekend was a band too po-mo for their own good—that they only played the actual music ironically, that it was a part of the V.W. experience secondary to the hyper-allusive lyrics and Vineyard Vines aesthetic. In a problem opposite to those of almost any other band, Vampire Weekend were a philosophical purpose in search of a musical style.

“Modern Vampires of the City” saw them finally secure themselves in the studio. They applied a digital-tinted baroque-indie-pop sound, complete with pitch-modulated vocals and looped basslines, and moods ranging from the thrilling mania of “Diane Young” to the hushed vulnerability of “Hannah Hunt.” Whereas the music on “Vampire Weekend” and “Contra” is almost obsessively in dialogue with other genres, showing off their cleverness and musical literacy, the production on “Modern Vampires”—even more impressively—instead engages directly with the album’s lyrics. As a result, both sound and substance are nostalgic but forward-looking, alternately panicked and melancholic, and (except on the dirgelike penultimate track “Hudson”) precise and economical.

It lacks the irrepressible joy of their debut or the musical adventurousness of their sophomore attempt, but “Modern Vampires” compensates with greater thematic ambition and coherence. Ezra Koenig, the band’s lyricist and frontman, leaves behind the witty reflections on class and campus life and flurries of historical references—seemingly bidding them goodbye in the sparse, devastatingly wistful opener, “Obvious Bicycle”—in favor of a long existential-atheist scream, occasionally interrupted by homages to their smart-pop influences (“Step”) and gorgeous cross-country romances (“Hannah Hunt”).

Koenig’s literal soul-searching is (fortunately) about as far from Richard Dawkins-style dismissiveness as the Gospel of Luke. Koenig, who grew up in a non-religious Jewish family, seems to crave a religious awakening throughout the album. “Got a little soul / The world is a cold, cold place to be / Want a little warmth / But who’s gonna save a little warmth for me?” he asks on “Unbelievers,” the album’s second song and biggest hit (by Spotify streams). That line introduces the album’s theme of the dual frustrations of atheism: Without either an order-giving, afterlife-promising God or the extended family of religious community, the world indeed feels cold and overwhelming.

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Koenig expands on the fear of mortality on the pun-titled adrenaline rush of “Diane Young” and the pleading “Don’t Lie,” simply begs for divine acknowledgement in “Everlasting Arms.” He returns to the social dimension of religion on “Finger Back” with a striking vignette about “this Orthodox girl [who] fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop”: “And why not? / Should she have averted her eyes and just stared at the laminated poster of the Dome of the Rock?” As the album nears its end, he focuses his questions on the Jewish theology of his upbringing with the brilliant “Worship You,” which thoughtfully satirizes dogma and national myth, and “Ya Hey,” perhaps the most musically interesting track, which laments the distance of the God of the Old Testament and modernity’s (consequent?) secularization. Those seven songs add up to what might be the most compassionate, nuanced, and honest discussion of religion ever put to tape by an “unbeliever.”

Like “Obvious Bicycle,” the album’s finale, “Young Lion,” also announces a turning of the page. The very short track comprises a faux-classical piano recital bookending a simple phrase repeated four times: “You take your time, young lion.” That lyric, apparently taken from Koenig’s real-life encounter with a New York stranger, works on several levels. Within the album, it gives a much-needed reply to the quarter-life-crisis angst that dominates the previous 41 minutes. Within the band, it lets their multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Rostam Batmanglij say goodbye, as he takes lead vocals for the first and last time before embarking on a promising solo career. And for the audience, it’s an admonishment to be patient: Five years have now passed since “Modern Vampires of the City,” and we still await whatever the fully mature—if Rostam-less—Vampire Weekend will give us next.

—Staff writer Trevor J. Levin can be reached at trevor.levin@thecrimson.com.

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