Vampire Weekend’s upbeat journey
The exuberant New York band is now a mature grown version of itself. On their last album, the music is still happy-sounding but the themes are complex and serious
At least two years before Vampire Weekend (VW), the New York-based band, released their debut album in 2008, there was already a buzz about their music. Courtesy the internet, a few of their songs were in circulation and they found immediate approval among critics, including the most sceptical of music writers. Their sound was striking—baroque or chamber music fused with indie rock, Latin sounds, dancehall and Afro-beat. And by the time their first, eponymous album came out, VW already seemed like a well-established band.
You could attribute that to the wonders of the internet but also to the innovative sound that the band had created for itself. For some listeners, that debut album may have brought back memories of Paul Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland, on which the storied musician had used African rhythms and beats. But VW would go on to fuse the Afro-pop element so integrally into their music that it would soon become their signature, bringing not only rave reviews from critics but also awards. The four albums that the band has released since 2008 (the latest was Father Of The Bride, last year) have won American Music Awards, Grammys, and other notable music industry citations.
The upbeat rhythms of Afro-pop and intricate compositions make VW’s music catchy and cheerful but it is also their literate lyrics that stand out. On the debut album, there were songs with titles such as Mansard Roof and Oxford Comma. VW started as a project of singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, versatile multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, drummer Chris Baio and bassist Chris Tomson, who met at the prestigious Columbia University, where they were studying. Fresh-faced, preppy (the band members often dressed in sweaters, chinos and moccasins, quite unlike typical indie rockers), and oozing the optimism of a privileged background, VW were like the antithesis of that era’s angry hard rock or punk. Their music wasn’t laced with angst or searing guitar riffs; it was like a well-layered tapestry of strings and percussion.
Something about VW’s music worked like a hook and on the albums that followed the debut, they maintained their trademark signature but still dared to experiment. Their own description of their genre was witty: They called it Upper West Side Soweto, a reference to the upper class-ish section of Manhattan but with an allusion to the Johannesburg township associated with the well-known uprising in apartheid South Africa. The phrase is probably appropriate because despite its members being entitled and Ivy League educated, VW’s songs often have nuanced comments on the modern man-made world where technology and neologisms shape and influence life and desires. Example: On their second album, Contra, in the song I Think Ur A Contra, they sing about the dilemma of wanting and yet hating the privileged life:
You wanted good schools and friends with pools
You’re not a contra
You wanted rock and roll, complete control
Well, I don’t know.
By the time VW released their third album, Modern Vampires Of The City, in 2013, their sound had become a bit less audacious and more subtle. There were still harpsichords, organs and sampled recorded music and the mood was still exuberant but in a less in-your-face manner. VW had matured but not lost their mojo. Then, a few years later, VW’s wizardly versatile Batmanglij quit the band. There was a lull, and some uncertainty, but the band bounced back. Their latest album, Father Of The Bride (2019), came six years after their third and it marked a change—not because it doesn’t straddle multiple genres like the rest of their discography (it does do that) but because of a looseness that one doesn’t usually associate with VW.
VW albums always sound upbeat but on Father Of The Bride, the band sounds at its exuberant best. It’s easy to be fooled by that, however. Scratch the surface and two things stand out. First, the lyrics, many of which aren’t as happy and cheerful as the songs could seem superficially. This Life is a break-up song about mutual cheating in a relationship but it’s likely you have never heard that theme rendered more cheerfully. Bambina is about storms and the environment. The second thing that stands out is the style of the music. The influences (of chamber music, Afro-pop, et al) are intact but there’s a 1970s-style hippie-sh, jam-band type aura to it all. Indeed,some tracks, such as Sunflower and Flower Moon, could well sound like psychedelic guitar-noodling, improvisational 1960s music.
In Batmanglij’s absence, Koening, VW’s driving force and main songwriter, has collaborated with soul band The Internet’s guitarist Steve Lacy; on a couple of songs, Danielle Haim, one-third of the band of three sisters, HAIM, provides vocal duties; and famed Grammy-winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid (he has produced albums for Usher, Blood Orange, Adele, Madonna and others) lends a hand.
Emotionally, as well as musically, Father Of The Bride is a complex album. But it shows how the preppy boys from New York (who are in their mid-30s now) have grown into mature musicians, not only able to write and compose songs that straddle multiple genres and deploy a range of sounds but also songs that comment without fuss on life’s complexities. And, what’s more, they make it sound happy and uplifting.
VW albums have always been packed with earworms and feel-good songs, which, when played in the background, invariably work as mood-lifters. On Father Of The Bride , VW do that in the very best way they have so far. At a time when the world is facing unprecedented crises and the future seems beset with uncertainties, what better soundtrack could you have for your life?
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks by Vampire Weekend to bookend this week
1. ‘Flower Moon’ from ‘Father Of The Bride’
2. ‘This Life’ from ‘Father Of The Bride’
3. ‘A-Punk’ from ‘Vampire Weekend’
4. ‘California English’ from ‘Contra’
5. ‘Oxford Comma’ from ‘Vampire Weekend’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
Twitter - @sanjoynarayan
FIRST PUBLISHED28.03.2020 | 11:20 AM IST