Vampire Weekend has all the necessary components firmly in place to be a truly horrible band. Cloying name? Check. North Jerz rich kids rocking thrift store Hilfiger? Check. Hyper-literate “jam all the words you can into each verse” lyrics? Double check. Seemingly learned everything they know about African music from Graceland? Triple check. Paid reviews in Pitchfork? Oh hell yes, check. And yet…well…each time you found yourself in some overpriced juicery or coffee shop or Urban Outfitters and one of their tracks came on after the fading synths of “Kids” finally quit, bright and bouncy and catchy as all hell and entirely inoffensive, you couldn’t help but be confused. Nearly every fiber of your cynical soul wants to hate this band, and yet, much like that hyper-annoying little cousin whose essays actually turn out to be quite great after he’s finally convinced you to read them, you don’t hate them. You can convince yourself that you do, but upon impact the hate is not visceral. As a matter of fact, those lyrics are kind of strange and dark if you really listen, and the instrumentation is skeletal with unexpected grating noise flourishes scattered throughout. If a band is going to be wildly popular, after all, it’s better these kids than Imagine Dragons. The Vamps make you think, and the Pro Tools are kept firmly in the background.
I forget the name of Vampire Weekend’s last album, but it was great. It’s the first of theirs I actually listened to, and it was strikingly literate and sad and had some of the strangest drum sounds I’d heard on a popular record since The Cure. That record was almost defiantly literate, the exact opposite of “Blue Suede Shoes”, and I found myself hitting that “back” button more than once to decipher some fascinating tangle of doomed poetic verse. This is far more than I could say about most modern bands with over 10,000,000 stream tracks, and it propelled this band into the “I’ll check out anything they put out” category.
So here we are. A new Vampire Weekend album. A good five years after the last one. In keeping with the spirit of these new release Friday off-the-cuff reviews, I shall simply record my initial reaction to each track, as it happens, to this sprawling new offering from the Vintage Polo Clan (which would definitely be their rap name). If you would like a more in-depth review that the band’s team paid handsomely to receive, then head on over to Fork right now for their glowing 9.1 (I’m guessing?) deep dive. But for the man-on-the-street immediate reaction, please read on.
Hold You Now
Horrible song title, to be sure. I’m hearing an undertone of country balladry here, which to my knowledge is a new thing for these guys. That fingerpicked acoustic, the marital strife lyrics. If this track would have stayed as a country ballad it would have been great. One of the girls from Haim makes for a decent Tammy to Vamp Man’s George Jones. But what’s with the tribal chants breaking in to disrupt the rootsy grandeur? They throw the whole thing off, for sure, but the dose of ragged “empty bottle and a broken heart” southern songsmithery in between them is entirely promising.
Is this song huge? Is it all over the radio and coffee shops? It should be. A song so catchy you can’t quite deny it. The Paul Simon “world music, maaaannnnn” overtones work well in this type of bright, brittle setting, and the hooks are hidden everywhere, in the barrel house piano runs, in the “whooo whooos” on the chorus, in the off-kilter guitar line that sprints through the latter half of the song. “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die”. Exuberance and suicide, all in the space of one chorus. This is The Vamp stomping all over their wheelhouse and swinging wildly.
I was worried for a moment there that there wouldn’t be any songs like the last record, but here we have a rubbery bounce and a deceptively dark heart, with those lit major sentiments rising nicely to the surface. Of “christian heart”s and Spanish girls. I’m not so sure about the Auto-Tune on the outro, mind you, but that type of thing has to be fun to experiment with so we can give the boys a pass on those painful ten seconds.
“You’ve been cheating on, cheating on me, but I’ve been cheating through this life”. The best track on the record thus far, refreshing like the vision of a soft serve truck on a 96-degree August day, with the bold harmonies and phlanged guitar barely masking a post breakup pain that rings all too true for anyone lucky enough to have been through such a thing. “Christ, am I good for nothing?” Well, you’re good for a perfect modern should-be pop hit, Mr. Vamp, so keep that head up allright?
I’m starting to see what’s going on here. Vampire Weekend are on their Sandinista! trip, the quest for the millennial White Album, tossing sound experiments at the studio walls and reveling in obscure detours, following anthems with mere sketches, tacking on bird calls and night noises. All of which is a fine, bold move, don’t get me wrong, but “Big Blue” shares nothing with “Bungalow Bill” other than a set of initials. As a matter of fact, the track is now over and I don’t recall a single thing that happened.
How many songwriters could rhyme “midnight mass” with “Christmas past” and get away with it? Not many, and I’m not saying Vamp Man gets away with it here, but I fully admire the boldness. This feels like another throwaway, but it’s a more catchy and engaging than “Big Blue” and its chorus wonders how long it will be until we all slip into the sea, reaching for a sort of good vibes apocalypse that not many envision when they think of End Times, but more should.
Now this is more like it. A stunning breakup weeper. “Baby I love you, but that’s not enough”. What more needs to be said than that? Typical of Mr. Vampire, he goes a lot deeper even though he doesn’t technically have to, outlining a bright type of pain that is, if anything, unbearably white…the snow of a NYC blizzard, the pages on his lost love’s notebook, the vividness of uncertainty and longing. “It’s hard on the body, it’s hard on the mind”. “There’s an avalanche comin’, don’t cover your eyes”. Disillusioned couplets over stabs of strings, and the song fades into a twinkling of keys like the comforting setting of the night on a too-bright day. A song of the year, this is.
Meandering, inconsequential, yet catchy and admirably experimental, we’re back on that White quest here. Vampire Weekend could have easily strung together a concise eleven tracks and released it to the mercy of the algorithms, but instead they decided to stretch out and give their sound some room to breathe. Will I skip this song on subsequent listens? Probably. But do I appreciate that they made it? In this case, yes.
Married In A Gold Rush
Now here’s a throwaway I don’t appreciate. We already had a decent Haim duet on track one, and this one would be overkill even without horrific lyrics such as “Something’s happenin’ in the country, and the government’s to blame”. I’m starting to get worried this record will collapse under the weight of its own ambitions on the back end. I guess we’ll see as we listen further.
Fears temporarily alleviated. Here we have a maudlin, jazzy piano ballad with delightful castanet grooves, easily the darkest thing this kid has ever laid down on tape. Here is the reason you can’t hate this band. Because no band worth hating would put a song this weird and warped on their major label debut.
Even better. This track has that classic Vampire world vibe groove, yet they allow the song to run gleefully right off the rails with pounding tribal drums, Adderall stream of consciousness lyrics, and random synth stabs punching holes all through the verses…and come to think of it this track is all just one long verse broken up by mad flight bridges. This is the first Vampire Weekend song that sounds like it could have been a first-taker.
Sunflower and Flower Moon
These two back-to-back tracks sound like what would happen if Fragile-era Yes had been sent a set of slight acoustic ditties and told to “just do your thing, guys”. Are the results good or memorable? Not really. I’ve already been planning which tracks to skip on the next listen, and these are certainly in that category, although “Flower Moon'” has less scatting and is therefore much less annoying.
This off-kilter bit of filler would be ok if it were not for the looped “boy, boy, boy” samples breaking up an otherwise tasty set of verses. Good thing it’s only a minute-and-a-half.
We Belong Together
Wait, another Haim duet? Could this Monsters Of Indie duet concept have made for a vaguely interesting side project? Sure. Do we need three Haim duets on the new Vampire Weekend record? You might, but I don’t.
Oh that’s right! At one point this record was sounding great, and this song reminds me of those times. The chorus is a stunner. “Things have never been stranger, things are gonna’ stay strange”. There’s that sweet spot of exuberant pain that Vampire Weekend can nail if they’re feeling it, and I definitely wish they would nail it more on this long distance run of a record.
Oh my gawd there’s that Auto-Tune again. Please get it away from me.
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
“Just think what could have been” goes the chorus of this fine closer, and indeed I’m thinking of what could have been. What could have been if Vampire Weekend had less throwaways on this record? What could have been if they were as locked in and fused to the muse as they clearly were on their last record? And most importantly, what could have been if they had simply released a ten song album with only one Haim duet and zero Auto-Tune? For example, if you take these tracks: Hold You Now, Harmony Hall, Bambina, This Life, How Long, Unbearably White, My Mistake, Sympathy, Stranger, and then this closer, you have a fine record. Instead what we have here is a bit of a slog, a marathon where the finish line not only gets further and further away but seems less appealing with each stride, and whether it was done for streaming cash purposes (more songs, more streams) or for experimental double album artistic overreach (the more admirable reason), the fact remains that it simply doesn’t work.
There are enough Vampire Weekend bangers here to keep me occupied with fashioning my own “what could have been” playlists, but overall I agree with Ezra himself that this is a “what could have been” record from the Vintage Polo Clan.