After three albums, Vampire Weekend
officially have an evolved history. The band burst out the gate with their bounding pop self-titled, followed by the developing limbs of comparatively underwhelming “Contra” from 2010. With “Modern Vampires of the City,” their patterns of pop and full-witted lyricism have segued with orchestras, choirs, more electronic-based rhythms and years worth of new tales of age and spirit.
Gone are the beach bonfires of “Cape Kwassa Kwassa,” or throwback rock of “Kids Don’t Stand a chance.” Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig explains it in part on new song and grand standout “Step”: “Wisdom’s a gift but you trade it for youth / age is an honor, it’s still not the truth.”
The band’s always been lean, with most of their tracks in around 3-minutes, but they’re packing them tighter, and thematically they stick to the point. Rostam Batmanglij and Koenig spends “Modern Vampires” on topics of spirituality, personal ritual and aging (both his own and the era).
"Diane Young" (read: dyin' young) has Koenig’s voice pitch just like Jamie Lidell like it, fronting a weird funk-rock party band from the ‘50s, playing with the genre with both a smirk and a big toothy grin. His voice is used as an instrument on “Finger Back,” taking us to Jerusalem – apparently at the “falafel shop on 103rd and Broadway” – in a bevy of altar organs of the highest order. He also takes us to church in "Ya Hey", which is so keenly and specifically about God/all-gods: it doesn’t fall out of the wheelhouse, but is another way to revel in the exuberance of language in the solemnity of the subject matter. “Worship You” and “Everlasting Arms,” as you can imagine, has similar warped features, as he explores the space between master and servant, class and honor, just here on Earth.
What there is of story here is in New York (“slash San Francisco”), but also in the imagination of producers (band multi-instrumentalist) Batmanglij and Ariel Rechtshaid in the studio. “Worship You” transcends from being a novelty, coke-speed faux-folk-romper into a sophisticated time-traveler through synth frequencies and gurgling samples. The capture the chilly, the doomed romance of “Hannah Hunt,” having Koenig shouting his punny punchline "Though we live on the U.S. dollar / you and me we got our own sense of time”; they follow it with three songs of solid basslines that would have Talking Heads talking.
Every song has something hidden, or amplified and then suppressed underneath Koenig’s verbosity and kiddish range; the band sneaks in the fake baroque of a harpsichord and holy choirs on more than one occasion. There’s fantastical flourishes of tambourine and what sounds like a kick drum on a very sturdy moving box for successful midtempo rocker “Don’t Lie.” An upright piano clamors for attention on "Obvious Bicycle," the repeating verses and slight color changes of harmony-laden “Unbelievers” and a bastard crew of rhythmic noise from “Hudson,” which is equal parts coming-of-age and disenchantment.
This collection puts Vampire Weekend up and over more than three dozen studio song, enough to say when they’re ascending and when they’re maybe losing their edge. Result: “Modern Vampires” is sharp as hell, elegant and lusciously treated to give it a consistent sheen, even on the weirdos. This is a move up, even from their debut offering, even from their most obvious influences and New York landmarks. After an effort this complete and viciously fulfilling, It’s tough to imagine anything they’d wish to revise, leaving it to its listeners: with so much mood, humor, variety, challenges and, of course, glorious pop music, there's little I'd leave off or add on.