Faith Restored: 'Modern Vampires of the City' Reviewed

Lukas Clark-Memler

Lukas writes about music for a wide range of international publications and a number of vaguely respected websites. He's music editor here at Chelsey, and hates having an empty inbox, so drop him a line with any questions, comments or music to check out at lukas@getfrank.co.nz

It makes sense that an album about faith would restore my own faith in the album – by ‘album,’ I am referring to a cohesive collection of thematically related songs that form a product greater than the sum of its parts. Not a smorgasbord of neon singles, not a disjointed array of celebrity collaborations, not television or film soundtrack fodder. I confess that my faith in the album has dwindled over the past few years, to the point of non-belief and empirical scepticism. "I'll believe it when I see it," I thought. It took some miraculous additions to the pop canon of true albums, like Arcade Fire's The Suburbs or Bon Iver's eponymous masterpiece, to prevent me from wholly abandoning the grand, stone Cathedral of Albums, and rushing over to the nondescript, clapboard Church of Singles.

The Old World is perpetually at risk of a Protestant takeover: established traditions vanquished at the whims of Middle American WASPs; the ‘rags of Rome’ replaced with jeans and a collared shirt. The 'album' has been under attack for the past few decades by the burgeoning new school of 'singles' devotees – these iTunes fanatics vastly outnumber their honoured foes. Standing amidst the ruins of a once great musical tradition, surveying the wounded troops of album-makers, Sgt. Pepper openly mourns. Music didn't die on February 3rd, 1959, but if the album is eschewed for the instant gratification of saccharine singles, then we dishonour the lives of Ritchie Valens, ‘The Big Bopper’ and the great Buddy Holly.

Forgive the religious metaphors, but the crusade against the album is an issue close to my heart. This is why Vampire Weekend's third studio album, Modern Vampires of the City, came at such a crucial time in my life. Not only was I burned out and hollow from the slew of sacrilegious singles following me around (at clubs, cafés, soirées, concerts), I was growing uneasy with the establishment of music criticism as a whole. If an artist didn’t set out to craft a unified record, to erect an aural monument, then why should the critic waste their time analysing it? One cannot deconstruct something that was never constructed in the first place. I’d hate to think of myself as a 'consumer reporter’ – merely advising the buyer as to where they should direct their hard-earned dollars (or for the pirates, their limited time).

I used to have such a strong passion for writing about music: I’d eagerly await new records, listening to them on repeat for days, deconstructing the music and lyrics, finding meaning. But in the past few months, I’ve gone days, weeks even, without listening to music (yes I’ve ‘heard’ music, but hearing and listening are very different things). It's been a long time since I last sat down and really listened to an album – start to finish, over and over – and wrote a meaningful critique.

These music-less months have been a dark time of spiritual fatigue and mental exhaustion; of sleepless nights and metaphysical questioning. And while my lacklustre attitude towards music (and everything else) may be a symptom of collegiate angst and my mounting student loan, or general existential depression, I like to believe that it's due to the fact that true albums are a dying breed. But now I break my silence. I once again put pen to paper (fingers to keys) to find truth in the work of great artists. It took four Columbia alumni to reaffirm my belief in music, and music criticism. Though it's ironic that an album largely concerned with the 'faithless' would have such a profoundly religious effect on me.

I’ve never been one to gush. I’m not a ‘super fan’, and I scorn at listeners who proclaim their idolatry through magazine cut-outs and lyric tattoos; I wear my cynicism on my sleeve, observing the wax and wane of the music industry through spectacles of cool detachment. But Vampire Weekend are special. I defend them in casual conversation, I hold their CDs in my hands and smile. One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to was Vampire Weekend in Auckland, New Zealand. This particular show stands out for many reasons: the solidarity of the crowd, the energy and perfection of the music, the soaring encore of “Walcott” (listening to that song still gives me chills).

Vampire Weekend are also important to me as a music critic. My first cover story for a Los Angeles-based magazine (the now defunct Bunker Hill) was a piece on the band’s second studio album, Contra (entitled: ‘Overcoming the Sophomore Slump’). And in a way, the band has grown with me. When I first listened to Vampire Weekend over the summer of 2008, I found the stories of campus love, wealthy heirs, and ‘pure Egyptian cotton’ to be exotic and enchanting. Come 2010, and I smugly sang along to Contra, quick to describe the taste of ‘horchata’ to anyone who hadn’t travelled in Latin America. Three years later, I find the lyrical themes of the two albums as self-conscious as my own writing from that period, but I still get a nostalgic knot in my stomach when I hear the machine-gun opening of “A-Punk” or the yelps of “White Sky.” When I pick up a guitar – though it’s been years since I really played – I still pluck the central riff of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

When album number three was first announced, I was ready for new material. I had aged, matured, and I was pleased to find that Vampire Weekend had too. From the initial promotional campaign for Modern Vampires of the City, it was clear that Ezra Koenig and company were attempting to distance themselves from an aesthetic that they’d carefully crafted over the past five years; Vampire Weekend have been nothing if not stylistically consistent. Their self-described brand of "Upper West Side Soweto" was an overnight success, introducing a new generation to the African-influenced sounds of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel. But over time, this preppy, precocious and frankly pretentious style began to detract from the music; the Frankenstein they’d inadvertently created overshadowed the creative personalities of the artists themselves. Criticised for their elitist lyricism and upper-class sensibility in a period of financial collapse (their debut was released just months before the global economic recession), Vampire Weekend suffered at the hands of an ignorant audience.

The truth is that no one in the band comes from a wealthy background: attending Columbia on financial-aid scholarships, their music was more a critique of the opulent New York lifestyle than a celebration of it. The media portrayed the quartet as over-privileged Ivy Leaguers, and described Vampire Weekend as 'the whitest band on the planet.' While the lyrical content of their debut and sophomore records certainly exude a distinct ‘whiteness’ – the grammar, Louis Vuitton, Cape Cod holidays and sartorial predilection for Ralph Lauren polos – the members of Vampire Weekend are ethnically diverse. Ezra's an Easter European Jew, Rostam's Persian, and both Chris' have Italian roots.

The mythos of Vampire Weekend took a life of its own, ignoring reality and favouring fiction over fact. So it makes sense that with their third release, the band was eager for a new ‘look.’ Exchanging their pastel sweaters and tennis whites for darker colours was the first step towards reinvention. For album art, the Ralph Lauren model and chandelier were replaced with a black and white photo of the New York City skyline shrouded in fog (clearly inspired by Woody Allen’s beautiful Manhattan). 

But the music itself is such a departure from the band's earlier material, that any superficial aesthetic reinvention was ultimately unnecessary. The music tells the real story, not the clothes, and with Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend have crafted a grand narrative, and matured far more than anyone could have anticipated. This is an album of the traditional variety: a piece of art that must be listened to from start to finish, that encapsulates a running theme, that sheds light on the human experience. Vampire Weekend couldn’t have chosen a ‘greater’ theme to explore: religious faith and the existential conflict of non-belief. More than ‘great’, this album enters the realm of religious art – of the Dostoyevskian variety – and like The Brothers Karamazov (or Michelangelo's fresco, or Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, or a gothic cathedral) this is art that binds the aesthetic and the devotional, art that is made to be worshiped, art that will outlast its creators and shine on into the dark days ahead. 

Are you still with me? I've now written over a thousand words and have yet to discuss the actual music. I warned you that this album elicited a strong reaction from me, and to discuss the twelve songs of Modern Vampires of the City without such a preface would feel inauthentic. The album begins without a pause, no sustained silence, no instrumental build-up; press play and the show begins. Straight away, lead singer and principal lyricist Ezra Koenig wrestles with newfound demons: "Oh you ought to spare your face the razor / Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you." It's a deep message from an artist who not so long ago was preoccupied with Oxford commas.

"Obvious Bicycle" is a nonsense title (the title of an old instrumental demo), but the song itself is a beautiful introduction to the album. "So listen", Koenig tells us, as orchestral strings soar and ethereal backing vocals conjure images of a church choir. The service has begun. Modern Vampires of the City is littered with religious Easter eggs that reinforce the lyrics. I won't comment on these (for a comprehensive guide to Scripture allusions consult Rap Genius), but for a fun Vampire Weekend drinking game, finish your chalice of red wine every time a Bible passage is referenced.

"Unbelievers" is the first of five explicitly religious songs ("Don't Lie", "Everlasting Arms", "Worship You" and "Ya Hey" – though every track on the album has religious undertones). The song begins with a sunny, organ-heavy riff, and while Koenig’s vocal cadence mirrors this chirpy tune, it masks some profoundly disillusioned lyrics. "We know the fire awaits unbelievers, all of the sinners the same / Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train." This fatalist conception of atheism (perhaps agnosticism) – rejecting faith even though you know it will result in eternal damnation – occupies the remainder of the album. Koenig questions the fate that 'half the world' (approximately 35% of the global population is Christian) has planned for him, and muses that even if he were to be ‘born again’ the world would still disagree; even a sincere spiritual change cannot alter the fate of the faithless. This existential, religious, defeatist angst is light-years beyond anything Vampire Weekend has tackled before. 

The next two tracks, "Step" and "Diane Young", were both released as singles and indeed stand out. "Step" is a beautiful song: musical wizard Rostam Batmanglij constructs an enveloping soundscape of contemporary R&B sparseness, punctuated by the twinkling of harpsichords and organs. It's a sonorous treat, and even without Koenig’s hyper-literate lyrics, it's one of the best pop songs in recent memory. But oh the lyrics… This is by far the most 'Vampire Weekend-y' song on the album, with lyrics that are impossibly dense and hilariously detailed. "Step" was first released as a lyric video, and there is something fantastic about watching the verse – 

“Back, back, way back I used to front like Angkor Wat,
Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar es Salaam
While home in New York was champagne and disco
Tapes from LA slash San Francisco
But actually Oakland and not Alameda
Your girl was in Berkeley with her communist reader” 

– appear on the screen, karaoke style. Unfortunately, unless you're a Columbia English grad, you'll have trouble keeping up. Koenig name-drops Modest Mouse and Croesus, while lamenting the passing of time, and the pretension of Astor Place punks.

"Step" is followed by "Diane Young" – I'll just get it out of the way and acknowledge the obvious homophone, 'dying young' – a '50s-inspired rock 'n' roll number (it’s the kind of song you want to call a 'number'), that shoo-bops and baby-baby-baby's toward an incendiary guitar solo. It also features my second-favourite lyric on the album: “Irish and proud, baby, naturally / But you got the luck of a Kennedy.” The video for the song is a contemporary interpretation of The Last Supper, with guests that include Chromeo, Santigold, and Sky Ferreira. Koenig plays the traitorous Judas, whispering into a balaclava-clad Jesus’ ear.

"Diane Young" effortlessly segues into "Don't Lie", an understated yet effervescent pop gem. It's an excellent track, and as Koenig questions the fact that "Gods' loves die young" and that "there's a headstone right in front of you" the listener can't help but wonder what happened to the band in the years since Contra. For me, “Don’t Lie” is simply the preface for track number six: the highlight of the album and apogee of Vampire Weekend’s career thus far, “Hannah Hunt.” 

If there is a better song than “Hannah Hunt” released this year then I will owe a lot of people, a lot of money. Some may say I’m being premature with my bet for ‘song of the year’ but I am that confident. The song begins with diegetic sound: background chatter, the hiss of gulls and waves and traffic, muted tones of banality. Then the underappreciated Chris Baio comes in with a throbbing bass-line, accompanied only by soft piano. Koenig begins his tale of a cross-country American road trip with admirable restraint. He sings in hushed tones, finding a newfound delicacy in his voice. The story behind the song is classic Vampire Weekend: Hannah Hunt is the name of a girl that Koenig sat beside in a Buddhist theory class at Columbia (though he claims he was never romantically-involved with her, and was only interested in her name).

The devil is in the details, but so is the romance: ‘crawling vines and weeping willows’ make an impression on the two lovers far more so than the famous ‘road trip’ iconography that’s littered along Route 6 (a highway that runs from Massachusetts to California – through all the cities mentioned in the song). This brings me to my favourite lyric of the album, a line as romantic as it is spiritual: “A man of faith said hidden eyes could see what I was thinking / I just smiled and told him, that was only true of Hannah.” This confession of love and faithlessness is the crux of Modern Vampires of the City: the absence of religious conviction does not have to leave a void; atheism does not have to result in anger. Instead of chastising the proselytizer, Ezra quietly chooses Hannah over God, love over religion. Though this replacement, this correction, has disastrous results a mere minute later. 

As the two drive from Providence to Phoenix (from the East Coast of America, to the West – from a New England seaboard town to the Sun Belt desert), through Waverly and Lincoln (suburban Nebraska – open plains, golden corn fields, and Technicolor skies), to Santa Barbara, California, their relationship deteriorates as fast as the climate changes. And with appropriate theatricality, the ultimate act of betrayal comes with Hannah shredding the beloved New York Times when her lover’s back is turned.

And then, after three minutes of controlled and reserved harmonising, the song explodes; the music soars and drummer Chris Tomson changes to a ragged beat; the calm veneer of civility is lifted and the painful rawness of love is revealed. “If I can't trust you, then damn it Hannah / There's no future, there's no answer” Koenig cries, with added reverb. His fear and anger are echoed in the sheer catharsis of Batmanglij’s howling soundscape. And for the rest of the album, optimism and youthful exuberance take a turn for the dark. Where Koenig was able to shrug off accusations of faithlessness in the first half of the record with an almost Voltairian irreverence, he now turns to direct condemnation of a religion hell-bent on prosecution. 

The subsequent three songs, “Everlasting Arms”, “Finger Back” and “Worship You”, pave the way for the climactic confrontation with God in “Ya Hey.” Koenig oscillates between anger at Christian judgement, and desire for God’s approval. Nowhere is this polarity clearer than on “Everlasting Arms”: what begins with “leave me to myself” finishes with “hold me in your everlasting arms.” Just because we can live without God, doesn’t mean that we don’t occasionally pine for divine reassurance.

After an interlude involving an Orthodox girl and a falafel shop employee on “Finger Back”, and the hyperactive energy of “Worship You” (a song that I consider to be the “California English” of Modern Vampires of the City – easily the weakest on the album), we arrive at “Ya Hey.” By now the metaphors and subtle references are replaced with direct and difficult questions for the devout; indictments of the mercilessness of God, and the vast contradictions that undermine Christian theology.

In the nine songs that precede “Ya Hey”, Koenig is careful not to offend, careful to avoid blasphemy; as the familiar agnostic insult goes, he sits on the fence. From the first line of track number ten, this thin courtesy has worn out: “Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn't love you.” To accuse the faithful (Zion = Jerusalem) of not truly loving their Heavenly Father is ballsy as hell (forgive the vulgarity). The ‘sweet thing’ is God, though not the benevolent God of fundamentalist propaganda. Instead, Koenig addresses the all-powerful, vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament; a God that tests piety through sadistic sacrificial acts; a God that is obeyed through fear, not love.  

The name of the track ,“Ya Hey”, refers to ‘Yahweh’ (or as it is written in the Hebrew Bible, ‘YHWH’), the original name for the God of the Israelites; a name that the Vatican has since banned from liturgy. ‘Yahweh’ is a ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ kind of thing – since God’s true name is unpronounceable by mortals, we slander Him by attempting to say it. The yelping and chanting and incomprehensible kazooing of the chorus are attempts at speaking the unspeakable; at addressing God in his own tongue; at bringing Him down to human level. The poetic confidence and audacity of Vampire Weekend, to break a thousand-year tradition of silence, cannot be over-exaggerated, and while I chide myself for even thinking this, Koenig’s metaphysical and religious angst is on par with Bob Dylan’s. Consider a personal favourite of mine, "With God On Our Side", where Dylan is at his most scathing:

“So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And they fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.”

That God is aware of Earth’s great tragedies – war, famine, poverty – yet despite His ostensible benevolence, does nothing to stop it, is central to Koenig’s lyrics. But because of the dense theological themes, it’s easy to overlook the fact that “Ya Hey” is also a catchy, perfectly-realised pop song: the instrumentation, orchestration and gospel choir amount to one of Vampire Weekend’s most accomplished tracks.

“Hudson” and “Young Lion” finish the record off in a purely secular manner, but despite the majesty of the album’s finale – apocalyptic dirge and heavenly outro, respectively – the listener remains consumed with the message at the heart of “Ya Hey.” It’s a message that has been building from the outset, taking shape in each subsequent song: with all the contradictions and evils inherent in Christianity, and a God that refuses to help a world full of suffering, how can anyone still have faith? Blind worship of a divine being is not good enough for Koenig. The Old Testament story of the ‘burning bush’ (where Moses asks God to reveal His name), and the Exodus 3:14 passage where God replies with the cryptic “I am that I am”, form the chorus of “Ya Hey”:

“Through the fire and through the flames
You won't even say your name
Only ‘I am that I am’
But who could ever live that way?”

Who could ever live that way… it’s a profound question with no rational answer. Faith seems to be the only possible response. For all of us unbelievers, faith in a nameless God won’t help us make sense of the world. But faith in ourselves might; faith in truth, faith in beauty, faith in music. Faith in an ‘album’, a true album, can sometimes be enough. It is a testament to the power of art that Modern Vampires of the City conferred such faith on this humble listener.

Vampire Weekend have rekindled my faith in the ‘album’ and, 3500 words later, my faith in music criticism. For this, they’ve earned my worship.

 
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