Album Review: Vampire Weekend, “Modern Vampires of the City”

Modern Vampires of the City

When Vampire Weekend’s third record, Modern Vampires of the City (2013), opens with a hymn to the Millennial Generation (“Obvious Bicycle”), it might not seem like the logical place to kick off an album-length wrestling match with lyricist/singer Ezra Koenig’s mortality. However, it begins to make sense when you consider the world many Millennials have to grow up in: a world of broken markets and revised expectations, a world where instant interconnectivity and growing alienation coexist uneasily, a world seemingly rich in material goods and poor in meaning. From “Unbelievers”: “I’m not excited, but should I be?”

Ezra Koenig clearly finds growing up in such a world a mixed blessing. “Age is an honor,” he concedes on the harpsichord-tinged “Step,” but “it’s still not the truth.” The man singing those words is only twenty-nine. But that isn’t going to stop him from asking the kinds of questions that more often attend midlife crises:

I want to know, does it bother you?
The low click of a ticking clock
There’s a headstone right in front of you
And everyone I know
(“Don’t Lie”)

Piling into the car with your girlfriend and driving into the sunset can’t banish the malaise (“Hannah Hunt”); even New York City itself is ultimately evanescent (“Hudson”).

So Koenig turns to faith, or at least the vocabulary and iconography of faith, to help him come to grips with his own impermanence. Modern Vampires of the City is not a religious record by any means. But even as Koenig appears to reject him, a strange fascination somewhere between pity and awe draws him, in song after song, back to the God of his Hungarian Jewish fathers. Such a combative relationship to the Almighty has roots in the Hebrew tradition itself: like Jacob, Koenig is quite prepared to wrestle with God, “calling for the misery to always be explained” (“Worship You”). But unlike Jacob, Koenig’s struggles don’t appear to resolve into belief. As he sings on “Ya Hey” (a pun on the name of the Hebrew God):

Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything
Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything

Lest you get the wrong impression, the music against which Koenig & Co. ponder such imponderables is anything but morose. Paul Simon’s Graceland has long been Vampire Weekend’s touchstone; and while they still take Simon’s perpetual observer status and coy melodic sensibilities as their basic blueprint, the skittish South African pop of their first two albums has been replaced here with a wider musical palette. Gorgeous harpsichords grace “Step” and “Don’t Lie”; energetic percussion and rock organ propel “Unbelievers”; “Worship You” surges forward with crisp snare and a full-throttle lyrical delivery; the smoky “Hudson” has an appropriately cinematic sweep. The band is particularly adept at layering instruments to build and release tension, so that no two verses even of the same song sound quite the same.

Modern Vampires of the City closes with “Young Lion,” whose classical keyboards, string bass, and angelic choirs constitute another new phrase in the band’s vocabulary. The lyrics strike a comforting note: “Take your time, young lion.” For all his existential worries, Ezra Koenig still has forty-six years to answer his Big Questions (assuming average lifespan for an American male). In the meantime, he and Vampire Weekend are only getting better with age.


Buy it here. Spotify it here.

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3 Responses to Album Review: Vampire Weekend, “Modern Vampires of the City”

  1. Pingback: Tom’s Top 10 of 2013 | Revolutions Per Minute

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