Four students at Columbia University form a preppy band. Internet buzz builds. Their first record, a savvy and buoyant fusion of Afro-pop and rock, is a breakout hit.
Noisy critics with zero original thoughts and nothing better to do hurl accusations of cultural appropriation. No self-abasing apologies follow (musicians are allowed to have influences, after all).
Their second record debuts at number one on the charts. Their third record does the same and earns soaring critical kudos as well as a Grammy. “Great band” status is cemented. Six years pass, during which a key member departs.
That’s just a brief history of the acclaimed indie-rock group Vampire Weekend, which consists of singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio, and drummer Chris Thomson (and, formerly, multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij). The band’s next chapter begins on Friday with the release of their fourth LP, “Father of the Bride.”
Dating back to January, VW has put out six songs from the album in the form of three double A-sides: “Harmony Hall” / “2021,” “Sunflower” / “Big Blue,” and “This Life” / “Unbearably White.” Check out these loose and welcoming tunes and then listen to the five below from their previous records to get into the Vampire Weekend zone.
1. “M79” (“Vampire Weekend,” 2008)
The main strength of Vampire Weekend’s debut is the band’s ability to convert a sophisticated sense of craftsmanship into songs brimming with charm, wit, and breeziness. It’s how a track like “M79” can be both an ornate composition with string-quartet flourishes to burn as well as a spunky and tuneful pop song that’s easy to love on first listen.
The VW boys have an abundance of academic music training under their belts, but they don’t beat you over the head with it. It’s all oriented toward very rewarding pop pleasures.
Of course, any discussion of Vampire Weekend’s charms would be incomplete without highlighting Koenig’s quirky proclivities as a lyricist. The guy who once rhymed “horchata” with “balaclava,” “Aranciata,” and “Masada” clearly has a zest for colorful words and imagery. It should come as no surprise then that on “M79,” a song possibly about a strained relationship, he manages to weave in references to rickshaws, “bleeding madras,” and the Khyber Pass. His style is scattered and digressive but with plenty of natural smarts and curiosity at the core.
2. “Walcott” (“Vampire Weekend,” 2008)
I like to read “Walcott” as an attempt by Koenig to break the West Coast’s stranglehold on apocalyptic scenarios. It’s always in California where fictional calamity strikes. Koenig’s response seems to be, “Why not in Cape Cod? Why not among the lobster rolls?” Agreed.
What began as a short-film concept that Koenig thought of while watching the ‘80s cult classic “The Lost Boys” later became a song about a (ahem) vampire invasion of Cape Cod. Instead of the San Andreas Fault, sinking coastlines, and Skynet, we hear about Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Mystic Seaport. This is Koenig’s endearingly offbeat sensibility at work.
Then there’s the song itself. From a sonic standpoint, “Walcott” is the most urgent and dynamic track on Vampire Weekend’s first record. I suggest listening to it with headphones so you can fully appreciate how the texture and landscape of the song continually change. From loud to hushed, from fast to slow, from that ringing piano part to crisp strings to drums, “Walcott” is constantly on the move.
The whole arrangement is a feast for the ears. It also provides a vibrant framework in which Koenig’s ridiculous story can come to life. Once again, that expert balance between artful and fun carries the day.
3. “Diplomat’s Son” (“Contra,” 2010)
Here’s a rapid-fire breakdown of Vampire Weekend’s second LP, “Contra”: 1) There’s less of an emphasis on the Afro-pop aesthetic and more utilization of synthetic sounds. 2) It’s an adventurous and self-assured record. 3) The singles are high-quality, but the deep cuts might be even better.
All of these points converge in the funky electro-pop earworm “Diplomat’s Son,” which for my money is the album’s standout track. More than anything, it showcases Rostam’s dazzling talents as a sonic architect. You can really hear his meticulous design unfolding step by step as the song progresses and gradually picks up an array of distinct beats and melodies. It just builds and builds, adding one section on top of another. (As with “Walcott,” headphones enhance the listening experience.)
What develops is a dense, twitchy, and rhythmically driven web of sounds that pulls you along for the ride. With an assist from Koenig’s quasi-rap vocal, “Diplomat’s Son” is probably the most danceable cut in Vampire Weekend’s catalog.
4. “Hannah Hunt” (“Modern Vampires of the City,” 2013)
“Modern Vampires of the City” is VW’s best record in part because it’s their most mature and emotionally direct set of songs. It finds Koenig no longer content sitting back as a detached observer and storyteller. Instead, he lets his guard down, confronting age-old vexations about God, mortality, and relationships without deploying an excess of discursive wordplay to muddy the waters. His vulnerability is there for all to see.
Take “Hannah Hunt.” It’s a subdued and mystical road-trip song that seems to culminate in a breakup. As the action moves from the East Coast to California, we’re treated to Dylanesque narrative details and the heavy weight of words left unspoken until, finally, Koenig can’t bear the strain any longer. “If I can’t trust you / Then damn it Hannah!” he belts out, right on the heels of the band bursting to life. It’s an incredible moment, probably the most beautifully crafted section of any Vampire Weekend song.
As Koenig is laying everything on the table, the soundscape has shifted from muted tones to glorious technicolor, from a narrow-lens view to a vivid panorama. It’s Vampire Weekend at the height of their powers, all in the service of honest emotions.
5. “Ya Hey” (“Modern Vampires of the City,” 2013)
“Through the fire and through the flames/You won’t even say your name/Only ‘I am that I am,’” goes the chorus of “YHWH” “Ya Hey.” Yes, we’re a long way from Oxford commas and kefir-stained keffiyehs. The stakes are considerably higher here as Koenig takes the Almighty to task for His unsearchable ways.
Why all the mystery, he asks, why all the concealment? What Koenig desires is complete revelation. Like Moses, he wants to behold the glory of God in the here and now. Short of that, he’s left to wonder, “Who could ever live that way?”
Not that Koenig is gloating. “Ya Hey” might be a psalm of doubt-fueled reproof, but it also contains an undercurrent of weariness and longing, as if Koenig feels trapped between the competing pulls of tradition and modernity. Like so many others, perhaps he’s alienated from the former but not able to locate anything resembling transcendence in the latter.
I can’t escape the impression that, deep down, Koenig wants to bend a knee and worship. And it’s not just because he took the time to address God in this very earnest way. You also hear it in the music of “Ya Hey,” which is flush with cathedral echo, reverent choir chants, and an unmistakable sense of the sacred (those chipmunk effects notwithstanding).
Are his head and heart at war? I obviously don’t know, but the corresponding tension in “Ya Hey” between form and message is one reason it’s such a gripping and dramatic song.