(Originally written for Reverb1)
“can’t stand racists who think every poorly-run pizzeria is a mob front. Show some compassion 4 a struggling business & don’t pre-judge”
That’s a tweet from Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend‘s flop-haired frontman and chief songwriter. As Koenig has come to represent Vampire Weekend, it’s nothing like what you’d expect from him and, by extension, the band. Since they dropped their self-titled debut LP, Koenig’s prim New England style of dress and tendency to name-drop cultured esoterica has bound the words “Vampire Weekend” to boat shoes and pretense. The band’s weirder, sadder follow-up “Contra” should’ve shuffled off some of those misguided adjectives. However, thanks to the album jacket’s polo-shirted model and very first lyrics, that never came to be: “In December drinking Horchata / I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.”
But so like a pizzeria mistaken for a mob front, there’s a disconnect between what you glean about Vampire Weekend at a glance and what you get when you take the time to actually buy a slice and listen to what the owner has to say.
That disconnect has never been bigger than on the band’s new album, “Modern Vampires of the City.” You might recognize Koenig’s vocal effect and the band’s overall ear for melody from past albums, but that’s where the similarities end.
With its geographic shout outs (“Back back, way back I used to front like Ankgor Wat / Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar es Salaam”) and frolicking harpsichord, “Step” does touch on the band’s old style, but in a knowing au revoire rather than a simple retread. As its title suggests, “Step” represents progress and an embrace of the future, a concept the album is in form and explores in content.
Not just the future of a given relationship or one’s 30s from the vantage point of a twenty-something, but everyone’s big, capital “F” Future: death.
Because “Modern Vampires” is dark. If their first album was “Occident out on the weekend,” from its own phraseology, “Modern Vampires” is best described with the lyric question from “Don’t Lie”: “Does it bother you / the long click of a ticking clock?” Themes of age and dying abound on the album. Fittingly, “Modern Vampires” can be the heaviest in its poppiest moments: The catchy chorus of “Unbelievers” belies its swing with ambivalence of faith in light of death; pre-release single “Diane Young” is a play on the phrase “dying young.”
Speaking authoritatively about the lyrics is difficult, though, because with “Modern Vampires,” Koenig has composed some of the most nuanced and intriguing songs fit for modern radio. Is the “you” of the anthemic “Ya Hey” intended for Yahweh, a DJ or both? What are we to make of the cinematic frame story near the end “Finger Back”? What’s Tarrytown got to do with anything? These questions aren’t for Koenig, but the concerned listener to decide.
But you’ll only get struck by the album’s depth if you take the time to sit down and spend some time with it. Otherwise, you’d probably think “Modern Vampires of the City” is the most interesting thing Vampire Weekend has put out in their career. But get a booth, order a slice, stay awhile—you’ll see it’s the most impressive album from any band this year, boatshoed or otherwise.