In Everlasting Arms, Ezra Koenig sings about a chandelier that hangs above his head like a guillotine. That image more than any other encapsulates the themes of Vampire Weekend‘s previous two albums. Though many people focus on their Afrobeat influences or knotty lyrics, thematically both ‘Vampire Weekend’ and ‘Contra’ were albums about image and status. On their third outing, ‘Modern Vampires of The City’, the New York song-smiths have expanded – exploring much deeper themes and much vaster musical horizons.
Despite these changes, this is still most definitely a Vampire Weekend album. Rostam and Ezra still cherry pick from their influences and carefully craft wonderful music from disparate eras and genres. Opener Obvious Bicycle combines reggae percussion with Gospel music. Worship You sounds like something you would hear at an Irish trad session, while the beautiful Step mixes 90s West-coast rap lyrics with delicate French melodies. Musically, this album sounds like a love letter to the music of Rostram’s childhood, and like all good love letters, it’s honest, passionate, and delicate.
However, what makes this album really stand out from the band’s previous work is the themes it explores. And if musically this album belongs to Rostam, thematically it belongs to Ezra. It’s a deeply personal album. There’s no exposition – almost no storytelling at all. When it does introduce a narrative, it’s all brought back to Ezra. It’s almost conversational- “You and I will die unbelievers“, “I could never love you“, “I was born to live without you, but I’m never going to understand, never understand“, he sings.
What he’s singing about through the album is a struggle- a struggle with faith (Unbelievers, Everlasting Arms, Ya Hey), with growing up (Don’t Lie, Step, Obvious Bicycle), and with death (Diane Young, Hudson). It’s all very deep. It’s like the young musician is going through some sort of quarter-life crisis. He explores these ideas by asking philosophical questions, engaging with the past, and transposing it to the present (as a modern vampire would).
At points the album appears to stray away from these loftier ideas, back to the playful, ephemeral, Vampire Weekend of their previous two outings yet each song has its own moments of depth. Finger Back rampages ahead at chaotic speed until breaking into a spoken word story about an orthodox girl falling in love with a boy from the falafel shop. Hannah Hunt starts off quiet and seems to be going nowhere until it flourishes into a beautiful interplay between Ezra’s vocals and Rostam’s gentle piano melody with accompanying strings. It’s a moment of sheer musical brilliance that you just want to last longer.
However, the album peaks a few tracks later with current single Ya Hey – a catchy, bittersweet conversation between Ezra and God that bursts into a childlike, almost silly chorus built around the chanting of his name. It’s so fantastically simple and charming; the finest point in this young band’s career. A song that truly surprises the listener. A type of religious experience.
On the album closer, Rostam sings “You take your time, young lion“. He’s speaking directly to Ezra. There are answers out there, but there’s no need to rush. It calls on him to accept some ambiguity. And If ‘Contra’ was a reaction to the band’s perceived image; ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’ is an acceptance- a shoulder-shrug to the naysayers. It’s an album far more focused on substance rather than style and far more timeless for it. Not only that, it’s the best album yet recorded by one of the most exciting bands of a generation.