Two days before indie pop band Vampire Weekend released their newest singles, the band tweeted for the first time since 2014. A few days later, they broke a five-year YouTube hiatus, and their Instagram revival got a head start with a picture of a broken TV in late May. Whereas Adele took a few months to recover from throat surgery and Justin Bieber took, debatably, four years to transform himself into a functional adult musician, it’s been over half a decade of silence since Vampire Weekend released their last album.
After a few personnel changes and lots of scrapped ideas, however, Vampire Weekend is finally ready to make their comeback — and their upcoming album, “Father of the Bride,” will appear in early 2019. The band will offer two new singles each month until its debut, the first set of which were released on Jan. 24. “2021” is a laid-back, interlude-esque number; at five minutes and nine seconds, “Harmony Hall” is bouncy, folksy, and far less brief. Still, for all the waiting, all the false starts, and all the tested patience, the resulting singles sound uncannily like — well, Vampire Weekend songs.
“2021,” the shorter of the two singles at one minute and 38 seconds, provides a fresh soundbite of a long-standing Vampire Weekend archetype. The song glancingly inspects what it means to have a legacy — a topic (time and its passage) that is familiar territory for the band. Fittingly, the song’s beat was originally written in the ‘80s by Haruomi Hosono, who composed it for the Muji stores in Japan. Hosono’s work adds a thumping energy to an otherwise bittersweet melody, adding “2021” to the storied canon of “sad Vampire Weekend songs with bouncy baselines.”
The element that gives “2021” its edge, however, is the scream-sung word “BOY” interjected like a percussion instrument in the song’s background. In a single about the passage of time, the word is a brusque reminder that the musicians are, in fact, no longer boys. The band was formed in 2006 when its members were students at Columbia University; 13 years later, Vampire Weekend is making music for a different world. The shrill “BOY” functions almost as a nod to this incongruence. The word fits oddly with “2021”’s gentle lyrics about passing years, and its bite deepens an otherwise simple number.
If “2021” offers a literal musing on the passage of time, however, then the more ambitious “Harmony Hall” provides a different take on nostalgia. The band’s second single relies less on the concept of legacies and more on the actual legacy that Vampire Weekend has already accrued. Over a decade into the band’s tenure, and Harmony Hall may be the most “Vampire Weekend” Vampire Weekend song ever written. It borders on prototypical. Even part of the song’s chorus (“I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die”) is taken word-for-word from the outro of their earlier song, “Finger Back.”
Beyond its literal self-referencing, “Harmony Hall” also works precisely within the niche that Vampire Weekend is known for. Like “2021” — and like most of their previous output — it combines quasi-academic lyrics with sunshine-and-banjos instrumentals. Its words, on the other hand, are far more aggressively political. Instagram commenters surmise that the term Harmony Hall likely refers to a building at the band’s alma mater, and the resulting chorus throbs with resentment for elite power. “And the stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness / Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified,” the lyric goes. The last phrase, especially, has a sharpness to it. The line’s use of the second person and its disillusionment with authority (“a place you thought was dignified”) are relevant to many institutions of power — including Columbia, Harvard, and currently, the federal government.
But a listener could be forgiven for listening to “Harmony Hall” without thinking about politics. Lyrics aside, “Harmony Hall” is a bouncing, strumming, windows-rolled-down kind of song. It takes long guitar riff detours. It has a sing-along chorus. Even at over five minutes, it never overstays its welcome. “Harmony Hall” is just a hard song to hate. For a band whose last album was centered around death, the single is almost arrestingly cheerful.
Vampire Weekend could, of course, have taken greater risks with their comeback singles. They could have wandered further into the depths of alternative music, or deviated more aggressively from their previous style. But instead, they offered two unassuming, upbeat singles that align perfectly with the legacy that the band left behind them. Rather than challenge its listeners, Vampire Weekend gave them something nice to sing along to. And although Vampire Weekend’s past albums were praised for pushing boundaries, there is immense value in their current feel-good strategy. It puts Vampire Weekend in a promising, if unusual, position for their comeback album: the band may be able to pick up exactly where they left off. Unlike many of the cultural touchstones of six years ago, they still have the chance to be at least as good as one remembers. Old fans can only hope, then, that all of “Father of the Bride” lives up to the first songs’ cautious promise.
— Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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