By Brendan Krovatin
At the threshold of the collegiate summer, Vampire Weekend released their new album “Modern Vampires of the City.” The critics went pretty wild about it.
For me, and a few other pretty diehard Vampire Weekend fans, the album did not immediately stick. It didn’t have the light New England summer/Ivy League feel of their eponymous album or the bouncy, plasticity of “Contra.” The songs were less baroque and generally less full.
It could not be denied that something was altogether different about “Modern Vampires.” However, it was not until I had listened to the album all the way through about 10 times that I realized there was something really moving about these songs, meanings hidden beneath seemingly cryptic titles like “Obvious Bicycle.”
The music of “Modern Vampires” is recognizably Vampire Weekend-esque. The sound is more mature and feels like their previous two albums combined, but there is a new element on this album: the acoustic guitar. Sure, there aren’t any folkie numbers, but songs like “Unbelievers” and “Worship You” have an undeniable rockabilly influence.
However, it seems to me that the newest sound on this album comes from the song “Hannah Hunt.” Although hints of this style appeared in “I Think Ur a Contra,” “Hannah Hunt” is the natural maturation of such a style. With extremely soft vocals and a quiet driving piano riff, the song slowly builds to an ending that is soaked in desperation, longing and fear. It is a healthy contrast to their usual fast-paced, upbeat style. But the album certainly does not lack those types of songs either.
“Diane Young,” one side of the double A single “Diane Young/Step,” may be one of the most exciting Vampire Weekend songs ever written. Mixing punk, old rock n’ roll, surf music and synthesizers, the group created an unforgettable song about recklessness, youth and dying young.
But the music alone cannot begin to describe the appeal of this album. Vampire Weekend has been somewhat notorious for their ambiguous and apparently nonsensical lyrics like this one, from their song “California English”: “Wouldn’t ever gag you with a spoon my only true love.” It would be hard to find anything like this on “Modern Vampires.” The album is a modern exploration of ancient ideas like death, youth, the afterlife and, perhaps most strongly, God.
One of my favorite songs on the new album, “Unbelievers,” examines what it means to be a religious person living in the 21st century. One of the most interesting lines reads “If I’m born again, I know that the world will disagree.” Zealous, reborn believers tend to be the least understood, probably due to their emphatic nature and claims of revelations. In a growingly secular society, to be reborn is to be misunderstood.
In another sense, Koenig, the group’s lead singer and lyricist, wonders whether he really wants any part of religion. The chorus, which begins with “We know the fires await unbelievers,” concludes with “I’m not excited, but should I be?” Is the damnation that comes to unbelievers truly something to lament or should he be excited for a life free from the concerns of attaining heaven?
His criticism of God and religion continues in the song “Ya Hey,” a clever misspelling of the Jewish word for God, Yahweh. Continuing the theme of religion’s place in the modern world, Koenig also finds fault in a god that “won’t even say [its] name.” In the Jewish tradition, the name of God, Yahweh, was never uttered, for to say the name was sacrilegious. Such anonymity appears too foreign for Koenig and ultimately impersonal, for he says “Who could ever live that way?” His lyrics display the tug-of-war between the comforts and the unsettling nature of religious life.
Popular music has lately had trouble embracing the idea that song lyrics can deal with profound topics if they do so tastefully. Turn on Q102 and you’re likely to hear “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. That is a perfect example of a song full of meaning and done tastefully.
And I would argue that Vampire Weekend does something similar with their new songs, even if the topics of their songs are not quite as socially or politically pressing. But I would like to say that this is the beginning of a new era of popular music, one that seeks to question, enliven, interest and awaken the music-listening population.