When the hoax artwork claiming the group’s next album was to be “Lemon Sounds” appeared, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many people were convinced it was real. For the band’s detractors it was confirmation that Vampire Weekend were content to rest on their laurels and produce a Contra II. For fans it meant approximately the same thing; they were just more content for more of the pop band that uses African influences (possibly) better than anybody that is not called Paul Simon. Instead the Modern Vampires of the City artwork is a mixture of futuristic and nostalgic; the font comes from the faux-trailer that gave the band their name and the image is a gothic tinged version of Manhattan coated in smog. It promised darkness, it promised advancement but with the caveat of keeping previous elements. All told, it was very appropriate for an album that Ezra Koenig has dubbed the closing part of a trilogy. The key question was of course, could it compare to the previous two albums, which somehow sound better today than they did just a scant few years ago? Fortunately the answer is yes. To expand, this is Vampire Weekend’s best album so far, and may manage to change the perspective of more than a few detractors.
To a large extent, the African influence mentioned have been side-lined in favour of more of the Reggae influence that occasionally popped up on Contra for some tracks whilst most have gone for a quieter embrace that chooses the harpsichord to surround Koenig’s voice. Rostam Batmanglij’s ethereal arrangements here seem in keeping with the album’s arcing themes of death and loss of religious faith; clearly far more serious topics than slyly lampooning preppy kids and singing about “good schools and friends with pools”
that they did so well on the previous records.
With this thematic talk, it is only appropriate to first focus on ‘Ya Hey’ a song that guarantees attention to be drawn to it by flipping the words of one of the best pop songs of the millennium. Yet Vampire Weekend are not asking you to
“shake it like a polaroid picture” ,
instead they offer
“America don’t love you/ so I could never love you/ in spite of everything.”
It’s a serious meditation on religion that somehow manages to work in references of The Rolling Stones and Desmond Dekker & The Aces. There is a hint that whilst this is not the strongest track available on the album, it is a likely stepping stone for the future, especially in terms of lyrical weight.
Speaking of the strongest tracks, midpoint track, the minimalistic ‘Hannah Hunt’ and opener ‘Obvious Bicycle’ are worthy of high praise but the listener’s immediate draw is towards the remarkably catchy, ‘Diane Young’ with frantic drum rolls, clever vocal manipulations, a brazen spirit and the hilariously dark lines
“Irish and Proud baby, naturally/ but you got the luck of a Kennedy.”
This couplet being cruelly appropriate for a song where Koenig tries to re-shape the name ‘Diane Young’ into ‘dying young.’ It is unsurprising that it was chosen as the first single, given that in terms of pop sensibilities, it ranks with the best of their material.
However, if Modern Vampires of the City can claim to have a truly stand-out song, it is the atmospheric ‘Hudson’. Quite easily the bleakest track that Vampire Weekend has thus far recorded, it imagines an apocalyptic Manhattan and a darkness closing around everything. Equal parts enthralling and heart-breaking, it seems bizarre that the significantly blander ‘Young Lion’ is placed after it as it would be a perfect album-closer, in much the same way that ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ was. Much like ‘Ya Hey’, if Ezra and company are determined to escape their previously cultivated image of “rich idiots” there is groundwork within this track.
If we are to believe that Modern Vampires of the City is the closing piece of a trilogy, it is equal to argue that it is the foundation of the next one- for a band made up of men closer to 30 than college freshmen, the maturity and darkness that is carefully and all too sporadically displayed here certainly offers a new soundscape for them to toy with. However such a transition should not mean a total abandonment of the ‘poppier’ elements; without ‘Diane Young’ and ‘Finger Back’ to offer upbeat ballast, it is doubtful that the bleaker material would be so effective.