Vampire Weekend Self-Consciously Grows Up

19-05-2019 05:05

Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride

The new Vampire Weekend album is both a comeback and a repudiation. The band’s first album in six years, Father of the Bride jumbles tropes and references with characteristic density. In today’s commercial climate, the album is a standard streaming-era extravaganza: 18 scattered, experimental, globe- and genre-hopping tracks in a sequence as patchy as a Drake playlist. It’s a show of maturity, an embrace of rock history, as well as warmth, sincerity, simplicity, and Americana-inflected traditionalism. The album announces, “Before, we were callow young men, but we have seen the error of our ways and embraced mature adulthood, for it is every man’s duty to settle down and start a family before death claims him.”

The New York indie-pop band was once marvelously shallow and frivolous, especially on their first two albums. Vampire Weekend (2008) and Contra (2010) are light, tuneful, summery romps, condensing trebly guitar, violins and harpsichords, bubbly, pitched percussion, and ska beats into clean, spare, distinctive, skewed guitar-pop that, despite comparisons to African pop and Paul Simon’s solo music, didn’t sound much like anyone. Although some critics recoiled from their early lyrics — which describe the superrich (or at least the moderately affluent) in amused, playful language — these songs were observed fictions, pointed vignettes about class politics. They didn’t celebrate privilege; they understood money.

They also understood the joys of superficiality. Their music was akin to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a film in which formalities like plot and acting vanish amid a procession of individual shots: lipstick-painted mouths taking bites out of strawberries; pink bubbly being poured into glasses; billowing white dresses. The way Vampire Weekend songs breezed through references to New England architecture, brands of clothing, and arcane drink recipes was much like their musical accrual of discrete sonic ingredients, creating a beguiling surface that was beautiful, and sharply critical. To seek underlying meaning would be to misunderstand their art. Sometimes their stories made sense, and sometimes they didn’t. Songs that consist entirely of shifting surface pleasures are delightful things.

Before their six-year hiatus, the sweet, blithe singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig collaborated with multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, from whose sonic imagination the band’s clean, dainty, music-box aesthetic sprang. Batmanglij has now departed, and with him has gone Vampire Weekend’s musical signature. To craft Father of the Bride, Koenig invited a wider range of guest collaborators into the studio, in the manner of Kanye West: duet partner Danielle Haim, indie-pop celebrity producer Ariel Rechtshaid, The Internet guitarist Steve Lacy, and David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors.

Accordingly, the album is long, dense, meandering, and inflated by the too-many-cooks approach. The airy, spare quality is gone. While the ringing guitars and weird percussive instruments remain, they pile up more heavily, their arrangements cluttered. Especially on the duets with Haim, who sings with earthy candor, the songs play with tropes from folk and country music (for example, the Porter Wagoner tribute “Rich Man,” the back-and-forth couples duet “Married in a Gold Rush,” the plucked acoustic guitar figures on “Harmony Hall” and “Bambina”).

Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

“Hold You Now” is a haunting folk lullaby, with a sampled choir overtaking the quieter, strummed acoustic verses, as the pedal steel cries. “This Life,” which features a gleaming rhythm guitar hook that sounds like classic Vampire Weekend, glides buoyantly over a shaky, clickity beat that somehow moves with striking assurance; every time the chorus emerges and the hook comes round again, the song gets grander.

Things decline on the album’s second half, as the moist guitar licks, random sampled noises, and strange paucity of danceable rhythm tracks start to blur, congealing into mannered stylistic juxtapositions for the sake of eclecticism. Many early Vampire Weekend songs fit this description too, but thanks to Batmanglij’s ear for space, they typically moved briskly. The mild funk of “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon” natter on.

Given the album’s sprawl and stylistic range, critics have compared Father of the Bride to the Beatles’ White Album, but the White Album was a mess because four creative personalities couldn’t agree on anything. Father of the Bride, despite the large number of musical guests, marks the evolution of Vampire Weekend into Ezra Koenig’s show. It reminds me more of Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, the album on which David Byrne announced that it was hip to be square and embraced American roots music.

As with Byrne, Koenig’s songs endorse a spurious ideal of maturity, in which a formerly ironic and immature lad decides to be a responsible adult and express his sincere emotions for the sake of a monogamous heterosexual relationship. Growing up and finding love are conflated as a general spiritual awakening (“There’s a time when every man draws a line in the sand”). Sometimes he gets apprehensive (“We took a vow in summertime/now we find ourselves in late December”), but ultimately he decides to take the plunge: “I remember life as a stranger/but things change.”

Their third album, Modern Vampires of the City (2013), also fretted over growing up and the passage of time, but Batmanglij’s arrangements precisely suited and enriched the material, as the chilly electronic echo and portentous church organ mocked the songs even while lending them unexpected emotional weight. If you wanted to, you could tune out the lyrics and just appreciate the textured harpsichords, the pittering, popping drum tracks, the rich intricacy of it all. On earlier albums, the music placed Koenig’s voice in a larger ironic context, one puzzle piece among many: for the cute, smart, talkative, secretly conservative boy in your junior seminar to sing songs that were subtler, funnier, and more exquisite than his voice alone could capture was part of their shtick.

Thanks to the folk melodies and strummed acoustic guitars — not to mention the vast scale of the thing — Father of the Bride codes as more conventionally expressive: the same boy now speaks from the heart. As if eyeing the increasing number of opinion columns about the reluctance of millennials to marry, Koenig has crafted an album that examines the conflict between staying cool and learning to love, about making a conscious choice to no longer be alienated.

There will never be an effective album about this dilemma, however, no matter how charmingly eclectic, because it simply isn’t a dilemma. Settling down in the conventional sense is not a necessary or inevitable development in everyone’s life; it’s also not incompatible with irony or alienation. It’s possible to be an arch, alienated brat in a committed long-term relationship. As with LCD Soundsystem’s songs about aging out of the alternative rock scene, Koenig thinks he’s addressing a harsh, fundamental truth about the world while in fact revealing his own conventionality; he spends a large portion of the album indulging in ordinary male commitment anxiety.

Given the album’s bright cheer, the melancholy songs fizzle; the wavery piano chords on “My Mistake” try to brood and instead sound tentative. Sometimes the cheerful ones curdle too: on “We Belong Together,” another duet between Koenig and Haim, the cutesy, mock-eager guitar strumming complements how sappily the singers coo at each other. (And they should have mispronounced “We go together like Keats and Yeats” for the rhyme.)

As an examination of adult romance, Father of the Bride doesn’t match, say, Taylor Swift’s Reputation; on “Call It What You Want” and “New Year’s Day,” Swift embraces long-term monogamy decisively, but also unassumingly, without fuss. Koenig spends Father of the Bride wringing his hands before making a big announcement, expecting applause for his decision.

As long as people’s lives are expected to follow the same linear maturity narrative, it will agonize those who don’t realize it’s not the only way. Every generation of indie-rockers goes through these growing pains — LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective did a decade ago — and it’s always tedious, because it assumes cultural contradictions that aren’t necessarily there. Maybe it was inevitable that Vampire Weekend would reach this point eventually — that they would perceive adulthood as a threat to the symbolic capital they used to mock and examine.

“Things have never been stranger,” harmonize Koenig and Haim on “Stranger,” and they’re wrong. Things have been stranger, and they will be stranger again.

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