Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

When any popular purveyors of indie rock elect to make a “mature” album, more often than not, it’s a cause to set alarm bells ringing.  Casting aside the appealing thrills of youth is seldom a welcomed in today’s musical globe: aside from the backlash of casual fans, it’s a move that risks failing to competently shoulder weighty topics.  Try to grow up too fast, and chances are the result will be an undercooked disappointment.

But Vampire Weekend are not your average indie-pop sprogs.  For all the criticisms railed at their preppy witticisms and smart-aleck compositions, there’s always been a fierce intelligence driving their music.  These four Columbia graduates know what they’re doing, and have taken their time with Modern Vampires Of The City; their third album, and the apparent closer to a trilogy which began with 2008’s self-titled debut.  Considering each record in sequence, it’s clear that Vampire Weekend have become more deliberate as songwriters, shedding some of their earlier impulses to approach new material with more calculated eyes.  Indeed, the care put into this latest effort shines through every gleaming piano chord and feathery harmony.

And by gum, they’ve pulled it off.  Modern Vampires is a record of relevance, with its topics far surpassing those of the group’s previous albums in terms of magnitude.  Against a backdrop of cosmopolitan America, Ezra Koenig and his bandmates plumb some troubling subjects this time around.  Heartache (Step), weariness (Everlasting Arms) and total disenfranchisement (Ya Hey) inhabit the streets that the group wander through on their journey, but this doesn’t make for a disconcerting leap in quality.  Rather, Modern Vampires feels like an organic progression, and thankfully, Koenig and co. haven’t lost their playful charm completely.

Modern VampiresThat said, it’s apparent from the off that times are changing for Vampire WeekendObvious Bicycle opens the album on a sombre note, unfolding in a curlicue of concert hall pianos and a softly crunching drum track.  It’s a brave choice for an opener, but upon hearing the album in full, it provides the perfect starting point before the upbeat chug of Unbelievers whisks the listener into the city itself.  It’s a much more visceral listen, buoyed on warm swells of organ and Koenig’s tuneful address of “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.”  A fantastic segment of flistles and tuba straight out of Pixar’s Brave rises triumphantly towards the climax: a prime example of how Vampire Weekend’s adventurous streak has been honed ever further in the last three years.

However, the band really excel when they allow themselves space to reflect on romance.  Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij have always seemed like modern romantics, and there are two cuts here where their own brand of New York poetry is allowed to blossom.  The fairytale of Step is sprinkled with snowy melancholia: harpsichords and multi-tracked vocals swirl over a waltz-time rhythm, with graceful choral harmonies lifting the song heavenwards as it continues.  This kind of prettiness should fall into sop, but instead, it’s a remarkable feat of songwriting, and perhaps the band’s most entrancing achievement yet.

Of course, many will place that accolade upon the album’s beautiful centrepiece instead, and not without reason.  Hannah Hunt is an instantly disarming ballad which finds Koenig at his most direct and vulnerable yet.  After two albums of relatively calm, assured composure, Koenig’s vocals finally split, in an open-chested, ballsy move which possibly stands as the album’s crowning moment.

Ezra KoenigIf songs such as these find Vampire Weekend straining for catharsis in bleaker times, it’s reassuring that they haven’t forgotten how to have fun, too.  Diane Young is a bonkers lead single from the same apeshit academy as Cousins, with some Flaming Lipsy guitar wizardry and funky pitch-shifting employed to brilliant effect.  Elsewhere, Finger Back is a relentlessly zippy rush of yelps and spoken-word breakdowns, and for all its Marmite properties, it does provide the more serious second half of the album with a welcome shot-in-the-arm.

And finally, following the militaristic darkness of Hudson, the swoonsome beauty of Young Lion closes the album with a cracked piano flourish.  It’s an opulent ending, perhaps a step too far for some, but it’s a suitably warm conclusion, with Rostam Batmanglij’s lead vocal softening the darkness dealt with in the previous two tracks.

Considered in its entirety, Modern Vampires is not quite perfect.  Some may be dismayed at the less instantaneous properties of the songs on offer here, and there are times when the pacing of the album feels slightly skewed.  But when all is said and done, there’s little about it that fails to impress.  Although I’d rather not judge it against the band’s previous offerings, it’s clear that Vampire Weekend have refined their idiosyncrasies to close their trilogy.  This is an album which deals in intelligence and ambition, while never disconnecting from a rich emotional core.  All in all, it’s a record which can remind us what good pop music can achieve.

8/10

“I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house / Such a modest mouse.”

17/05/13

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Posted on May 17, 2013, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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