Modern Vampires of the City
Late to the Vampire Weekend party? Here's a primer before we dive into the details of this New York indie rock act's third effort (and second to top the charts):
Formed by four Columbia University graduates in 2006, Vampire Weekend attracted both critical acclaim and backlash for its first two efforts (2008's self-titled debut and 2010's Contra). Intricate, melodic, African-inspired rhythms drew comparisons to Paul Simon. Ivy League-inspired song titles such as "Oxford Comma" invited accusations that the band's members were little more than privileged elitists.
Now the guys in Vampire Weekend (named after frontman Ezra Koenig's aborted attempt to film a vampire movie over a weekend in college) are back with Modern Vampires of the City. It's a dreamy-and-melancholy conflation of sounds rooted in 20th-century stalwarts (think Simon & Garfunkel blended liberally with The Beatles and Tom Petty) and 21st-century indie hipsters (think Jack White, Foster the People and The Black Keys).
It's also a sound in the service of a sober—and ambivalently spiritual—message about the reality of mortality and the role God may or may not play in matters of life and death.
"Unbelievers" mixes mortal and immortal themes as Koenig (whose family is Jewish with roots in Eastern Europe) acknowledges the reality of death and the possibility of judgment and hell ("We know the fire awaits unbelievers/All of the sinners the same"). On the other hand, that knowledge doesn't prompt him to believe—which obviously isn't a good thing. Instead, he hints that his unbelief was somehow predetermined for him: "Girl, you and I will die unbelievers/Bound to the tracks of the train/ … Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?" But we still hear something of a longing for salvation when Koenig sings, "If I'm born again, I know that the world will disagree/Want a little grace/But who's going to say a little grace for me." So there's clearly some truth here amid the melancholy and perhaps even despair.
"Step" slips into the territory of proverbs with these philosophical ruminations: "Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth/Age is an honor, it's still not the truth."
Perhaps playing on Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," "Don't Lie" asks if someone is prepared for death. Like Joel, Koenig acknowledges that even some of those whom God cares for perish prematurely (though no reason is given): "Don't lie, I want 'em to know/God's loves die young, are you ready to go?" The song is also preoccupied with the passing of time, which serves as another reminder of our temporal state. The inexorable passage of time is also a theme on "Hannah Hunt."
If layered onto the questions faithful Jews in Jerusalem might ask about God's continued guidance, "Worship You" can read as a genuine—if still skeptical—supplication to the Almighty: "City with the weight upon it/City in the way you want it/City with the safety of a never ending blessing upon it/You, You/We worshipped You/Your red right hand/Won't we see You once again?/In foreign soil, in foreign land?/Who will guide us through the end?" It concludes cryptically: "Energetic praise You wanted/Any kind of praise You wanted/Little bit of light to get us through the final days You wanted."
Dense, complex allusions, perhaps to a man's troubled relationship with God, fill "Everlasting Arms" as he longs to be held "in Your everlasting arms" even as he says, "I took Your counsel and came to ruin/Leave me to myself, lead me to myself." Then this refusal to submit: "If you'd been made to serve a master/You'd be frightened by the open hand, frightened by the hand/Could I have been made to serve a master/When I'm never gonna understand, never understand?"
In similar territory, "Ya Hey" (which seems to be a twisting of Yahweh) also voices cynicism about following God. "Through the fire and the flames/You won't even say Your name/Only 'I Am That I Am'/But who could ever love anything?" Later: "Oh, the motherland doesn't love You/The fatherland doesn't love You/So why love anything?/Oh, good God/The faithless, they don't love You."
Mild sensual allusions creep onto "Don't Lie." Obscure violent imagery fills "Finger Back," as we hear, "Break my finger (snap)/Wrap it in a paper towel/ … Hit me with a wood bat/ … Bless me with a heart attack/ … Eviscerate me now (hack)/Take me to my punishment/The punishment I needed all my life." The bleak "Obvious Bicycle" counsels an employed man not to bother looking for work. "Hannah Hunt" includes one use of "d‑‑n."
Artful indie-rock bands have always had more latitude to explore off-the-beaten-path subject matter. Even so, I've rarely come across an album that's more fixated on the big issues and questions in life than this one. Listening to Ezra Koenig and Co.'s reflections on the certitude of time's passing and of the Grim Reaper's eventual arrival sometimes even feels a bit like Solomon's philosophical and theological wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Unlike Solomon, however, Vampire Weekend repeatedly suggests that the God who presides over time and death isn't to be trusted. Lyrics describe men who apparently want to believe and follow Him but just can't bring themselves to do so. He carries too much baggage, they conclude. In the end, "Leave me to myself/ … Leave me to my cell" might be the overarching statement here when it comes to contemplating a real relationship with God.