While the glory that used to be associated with starting a rock band has not completely faded, it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight or cultural pervasiveness as it did thirty years ago. In our current musical climate, young musicians would probably prefer producing hits for Beyoncé to starting a rock band. This time last year, Vampire Weekend’s multi-instrumentalist and composer Rostam Batmanglij chose the former. His withdrawal from Vampire Weekend signified the end of a golden era for a great rock band, and marked the end of his partnership with the lead singer and songwriter, Ezra Koenig. The two of them were once a dynamic duo as vital as Lennon and McCartney, or Morrissey and Marr.
The reason why this matters is that Vampire Weekend is the best representative of a dying breed: the classic rock band in the vein of The Clash, R.E.M. or Radiohead. Not only did they score two number one albums in a row, their unique synthesis of historical references and infectious melodies also set them apart. In their three studio albums, Vampire Weekend grew better and better with no signs of stopping, finally reaching their peak with 2013’s indie rock masterpiece Modern Vampires of the City.
When Vampire Weekend first hit the indie scene, some critics and listeners derided the band for their preppy image, use of African music and knack for wordy lyrics. Fortunately, Vampire Weekend did not heed to such criticisms and instead turned their sound inside out, forcing the haters to reconsider their criticisms. Although Modern Vampires still retains some remnants of Vampire Weekend’s previous sound, it is more nuanced and spacious. Jumpy guitars and African rhythms are replaced with keyboards and mellow synths. A tone of creeping ambience floats in the background of every song, giving the album an omnipresent darkness and moodiness. The production is meticulous highlights the intricacies within the album’s sound. It is in these pockets of atmospheric tension where Vampire Weekend found its full potential.
On the band’s first two records, Ezra Koenig’s songwriting sometimes felt too on-the-nose. His tendency to throw cultural references into every line made the listeners feel burdened rather than enlightened. Fortunately, like any great artist, he gradually learnt to control his impulses in his work. In his pre-Vampire Weekend days, Koenig ran a blog of his incoherent ramblings. In one post, he managed to string his friend’s visit to Morocco, the history of the Strait of Gibraltar, a 1984 interview between Bob Dylan and Bono, the film “The Secret of Roan Inish,” and National Geographic’s famed Afghan refugee cover together in a way that made perfect sense. His narrative was funny, perceptive and clever. Although his medium of expression has changed, from blog posts to songs, his omnivorous cultural appetite has not.
In the song “Step,” one of the album’s highlights, Koenig describes his obsessive affection for music as being “entombed within boombox and Walkman”. However, the song avoids being just a messy list of names. Koenig conveys his infatuation with music through every element of the song. The chorus and the melody were both borrowed from Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl,” a direct ode to Koenig’s appreciation for 90s hip hop. The lyrics themselves are sung and rapped with delicacy and grace. They float gorgeously without the extraneous weight of pretentiousness. Koenig also applies simpler lines of truth and insight into his lyrics. The song’s key lyric is, “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth / age is an honor, it’s still not the truth,” succinctly summing up the song’s essence. Vampire Weekend’s songs are no longer inconsequential. In songs like “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey,” Koenig directly speaks to the Big Man upstairs, confronting him with questions about life and implying his existence with desperate confusions about faith. His songwriting does not condemn or affirm any of these ideas, they are just being thought out loud. In other songs, themes of mortality and time are also covered. Sometimes even the clock effect is applied to drive the point further.
Although the lyrics are thematically dense, Batmanglij’s tasteful melodies prevent the songs from drowning. The clarity of the music obliterates any sort of anxiety created by the ambiguous musings of the lyrics. Koenig and Batmanglij truly worked as one mind, pairing vocal melodies and harpsichord arpeggios in an infectiously delightful and natural way. Batmanglij, who usually decorates songs with thick layers of electronic beats, baroque instrumentation, guitars and pitch-shifted vocals, does much of the same on Modern Vampires, except this time, many of the songs thrive on what is not being done. The more minimalistic and precise approach of Batmanglij’s compositions fit well with the album’s overall maturity. There is room in these songs to breathe and to get lost in.
This genius combination of music and lyrics comes to a peak in the album’s centerpiece “Hannah Hunt.” It fades in with the sound of hissing ambient wind and murmured chatter, a scene from everyday life. It then gives way to Batmanglij’s gorgeous piano chords and the upright plucks of Chris Baio’s bass. Koenig, almost whispering, tells a story about a couple on a cross-country road trip. The details – crawling vines, hidden eyes, men of faith, freezing beaches, torn up newspapers – are all intimate, mystical and undeniably stunning. The music wails and weeps as the song soars to a heart wrenching conclusion. Screeching guitars and clashing piano keys roar as they blend into Koenig’s best vocal moment. “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah / there’s no future / there’s no answer,” Koenig screams at the top of his lungs. The song blooms with every element of Vampire Weekend’s musical identity refined to perfection. For an album obsessed with time and fate, it is a moment when all is stopped for the universal power of emotions and memories.
Vampire Weekend poses many questions on Modern Vampires of the City without really answering any of them. But that’s just how life is, completely uncertain and bound by the constraints of time. I believe Vampire Weekend is optimistic and resilient for the future, as they have always been. They may have been the last hope for a bygone era of rock music but their fate is not for anyone to decide. They will keep doing what they’ve been doing and they will still be, to some degree, great, even with the loss of a crucial member. Most importantly, I hope they will continue to observe the mysteries of the human condition through simpler truths of life. Maybe there will be a second coming of rock music, which may or may not happen in our lifetime. What we do know for sure is that Vampire Weekend are no longer just an encyclopedia for the past times but a powerful source of their own style. They don’t have to be a great classic rock band anymore.
In that sense, they have beaten time. A+