Vampire Weekend’s second album, “Contra,” opened with “Horchata,” a calypso-influenced ditty that stated, “Winter’s cold is too much to handle.”
“Modern Vampires of the City,” the band’s new album, shows them at long last forced to face the cold up close. If their self-titled debut was their summer album and “Contra” their fall album, “Modern Vampires of the City” is very much their winter album.
This album is sure to make people scratch their heads, wondering when Vampire Weekend became so bleak but, really, it’s nothing new.
Granted, this is a big step towards a more melancholy sound for the band, but there were plenty of moments on both “Vampire Weekend” and “Contra” where the band explored sadder and darker ideas, both musically and thematically. “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” their debut’s finale, was a slow track with strings, a violin solo and lyrics like, “You criticize the practice/By murdering their plants/Ignoring all the history/Denying them romance.” Meanwhile, songs like “Diplomat’s Son,” “I Think Ur a Contra” and especially “Taxi Cab” made “Contra” a less peppy and more downbeat effort.
But even on “Contra,” the faster and more energetic tracks still dominated. On “Modern Vampires of the City,” very little of the African influence is left, which isn’t the travesty that Alternative Press has made it out to be or the relief that Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal very offensively made it out to be (“It largely trades in the Africa-inspired giddiness of their first two records for a sound that’s distinctly innate and closer to the ear.”)
Instead, like “Contra,” “Modern Vampires of the City” is a nice change for Vampire Weekend. This isn’t a band that sticks to a gimmick. Instead, they prove their worthiness as musicians and songwriters by continually changing their sound with each album and yet still winding up with a gem every time.
The main change on this record is Rostam Batmanglij, the band’s keyboardist and producer, who completely shines this time around. “Modern Vampires of the City” is easily the group’s most well-produced record, which is evident from the opening three songs. “Obvious Bicycle” gets things started with minimal music, supported by some of the most gorgeous vocal and melody work lead singer Ezra Koenig has ever put together.
The second track is “Unbelievers,” which I ranked No. 61 on my list of the 100 best songs of 2012 before a studio version even existed. The version here is terrific, organ-laded Springsteen-esque pop that will no doubt turn off the same people who called them sellouts for featuring Joe Jonas in the “Giving Up the Gun” video.
“Unbelievers” is then followed by the album’s greatest moment, “Step,” a song full of beauty, clever lyrics and an amazingly catchy chorus (“The gloves are off/The wisdom teeth are out/What you on about?”). Koenig has said that New York City at night was a huge inspiration for this album. “Step” is the biggest indication of that inspiration.
“Diane Young” is the album’s fourth track and, like “A-Punk” and “Holiday” on their previous albums, it will probably be the album’s most popular song despite not being as inspired as many of the other tracks. It’s still pretty fantastic, though, with obvious R&B influence and unique vocal effects.
“Hannah Hunt” and “Everlasting Arms” combine to make a brilliant center of the album. Both are slow, heavily orchestrated tracks with lyrics that deal with spirituality and religion. They are followed by “Finger Back” (the fastest and most rocking track), “Worship You” (which features a breakdown that brings Neutral Milk Hotel to mind) and “Ya Hey” (“I am that I am”).
These songs are all very different from each other, making “Modern Vampires of the City” Vampire Weekend’s most diverse effort. They all have something in common, though. Where “Vampire Weekend” showcased the band’s love of world music and “Contra” was incredibly influenced by new wave (and rock and roll, in general), “Modern Vampires of the City” shows their classical roots coming out.
After hearing an early stream of the record, a friend of mine remarked, “You’re bigger on ‘M79’ than I am, so you’ll like it more than I did.” That’s very true. If you dig the musicianship of “M79” and “Taxi Cab,” you’ll probably love this album. But, if you think of Vampire Weekend as a rock band first and foremost, there aren’t many songs here in the vein of “A-Punk” or “Cousins.”
At the same time, Vampire Weekend prove on “Modern Vampires of the City” that they understand music in a way that people like Dombal just don’t. They don’t discriminate against music styles. They know that great music isn’t always “close to ear.” And they also know that great music isn’t related to genre, but instead to songwriting. As long as they have Koenig and Batmanglij to keep the songwriting afloat, they will continue releasing albums as marvelous as this one.
Key Tracks: “Step,” “Everlasting Arms,” “Unbelievers,” “Obvious Bicycle,” “Finger Back” and “Worship You.”