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Album Review
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City Album Cover

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

Reviewed by
9.5
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Record Label: XL Recordings
Release Date: May 14, 2013
This review was written by an AP.net staff member.
Take a second and have a closer look at the album art on your left. More specifically, if you’ve followed this band as they’ve risen from preppy, Paul Simon-worshipping Ivy League grads with an insane amount of blog buzz and then inevitable blog backlash to arguably the most instantly recognizable brand in independent music, think about the picture you see in comparison with the covers of their first two records. The artwork for the band’s self-titled debut was a Polaroid snapped at one of the group’s first concerts at Columbia University: a memorable, slightly askance picture of a chandelier suspended above a sea of heads. The cover of the band’s 2010 follow-up Contra was graced by a good-looking blonde in a yellow Polo shirt, Mona Lisa eyes fixed on nothing in particular. The picture you see on your left, on the other hand, is a majestic 1966 photograph of the New York City skyline, taken on the smoggiest day in the city’s history.

Much as the cover of their first record displayed a fairly typical collegiate scene—kids standing in a room listening to music, most likely drinks in hand—Vampire Weekend was full of bouncy, Afrobeat-inspired pop songs about college kids and recent college graduates and their interactions with one another and society. While certainly a very good record, it was fairly one-dimensional from a narrative perspective. The characters on that album ignore each other on campus, take off their sweaters to have sex, and flee New Jersey, but they don’t seem to think too terribly much about anything besides the immediate, that which is right in front of them. It’s a very carefree and joyous album, which was a large part of why it was so infectious and generated so much buzz.

Contra, however, while certainly tethered to the same upper-crust East Coast world that Vampire Weekend was, seemed infinitely more self-aware, and also at times skeptical concerning said world. After all, the album’s title is Spanish for “against.” “You wanted good schools, and friends with pools / You’re not a contra,” Ezra Koenig sang on that record’s closing track. Like the well-dressed woman on the album’s cover staring vacantly into the distance might have, Koenig seemed to struggle with this privileged world as much as he found joy in it on Contra.

Modern Vampires of the City is absolutely a continuation of the narrative begun by the first two Vampire Weekend records, and is the crown jewel of the band’s artistic endeavors thus far. “We realized that there are things connecting the songs across all three albums,” guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij said in a recent interview. “It does feel like we’ve been able to create three distinct worlds for each album, and yet have them be interconnected.”

It should be a shock to no one at all given the album art and title that the world of Modern Vampires is firmly rooted in the character of New York City: the bustling sounds of trains and traffic rattling by, children laughing at a neighborhood park, the death of Henry Hudson, an Orthodox girl who falls in love with a guy at a falafel shop—these are a few of the ways in which the city and the people who inhabit it seep into the record. But the main themes of the record are not tied to New York City, nor any other particular geographic location: no songs about Cape Cod this time around. Lyrically this is Vampire Weekend’s most universally appealing record, and also their darkest one by a very large margin.

Koenig has matured tremendously as a writer, and the subjects he tackles here are pretty hefty ones for an album full of brilliantly constructed orchestral pop: death, fear of failure, the afterlife, religious doubt, death, existential unrest, and oh did I mention death? Death and dying pop up in almost every song on this album in one form or another. “I want to know, does it bother you / The long tick of clicking clock? / There’s a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know,” Koenig sings on “Don’t Lie,” but by the end of that song the line has changed to “There’s a lifetime right in front of you.” That’s a crucial change, as Koenig and the characters he portrays on this album seem to be made ill-at-ease not so much by the actual act of ceasing to live, but more by the idea of dying without having fully reached one’s potential.

It’s a very common thing for any human being to struggle with, but it’s particularly common among intelligent minds that have reached their late 20s, yet still feel some sort of dissatisfaction with their situation in life. There are literally millions of young, well-dressed and handsome people walking around New York City as we speak with the same dread running through them that Koenig so masterfully expresses on this record. The more I listened to this album, the more it reminded me of the work of another well-known New York indie rock band who also have a record coming out this month. Koenig is tackling the same fears and misgivings and awkward missed connections on this record that The National’s Matt Berninger has been for years, and while I don’t want to go too far down the road of comparison since they both have very distinctive and obviously quite different styles, both men seem to reach similar conclusions: there’s really not necessarily an answer to the fears that keep you up at night.

On Modern Vampires, when Koenig looks at the world of Vampire Weekend’s first two records, he’s mostly looking at them backwards in time, such as on “Step,” which begins with the words, “Back, back, way back” before continuing to a seemingly wistful remembrance of champagne and disco in New York, and a girl with a communist reader in Berkeley—but the crucial line comes at the end of the first verse: “I was a hoarder, but girl that was back then.” He may be looking backwards here, but he’s not stuck in the past by any means. “Nobody knows what the future holds / Said it’s bad enough just getting old / Live my life in self-defense / You know I love the past, ‘cause I hate suspense,” he sings during the bombastically spine-tingling climax of “Diane Young.”

It’s easy to get lost in the lyrical world that Koenig draws up for Modern Vampires of the City, but to do so would be missing what really makes this record great: it’s one of the most ambitious, marvelous, and truly unique-sounding pop records that anyone has made recently.

First off, Koenig’s vocals are spot-on throughout, as he has blossomed not only as a lyricist but also as a vocalist, doing things with his voice that we haven’t heard before, such as the creepy baritone vocals on “Hudson” or the maniacal yodeling on “Worship You,” or the “baby, baby, baby” bit on “Diane Young.” He also nails the vocal parts that are more typical in terms of what we expect from him, such as on “Step” or “Unbelievers.” His vocal hooks are unbelievably good—these are easily the catchiest set of songs the band has recorded to date, and that’s saying a ton for them. Furthermore, the harmonies throughout the record sound fantastic as well, especially on songs like “Unbelievers,” although I’m not sure whether those are the work of Koenig or Batmanglij. Batmanglij definitely does the harmonies on that particular song when it’s performed live, but it could be either of them on record.

Speaking of Rostam Batmanglij, he’s at least as responsible as Koenig for making this Vampire Weekend’s best record to date, if not even more so. He has long served as the primary producer in the band, and he’s done an absolutely stunning job this time around. The breed of orchestral pop found on this album has been fine-tuned down to the point where every minute detail of the band’s sound is pitch-perfect. There’s so much going on in the arrangements here that one would think it would get overwhelming—but somehow everything meshes perfectly. Batmanglij uses a smorgasbord of beautiful keyboard tones, layered samples and bizarre effects—primarily on Koenig's vocals and Chris Tomson's drums—to create an atmosphere that is truly unique and wholly engaging.

I could write pages and pages about all of the awesomely weird little sounds found in the mix here, such as the weepy, heavily processed guitar (or synthesizer maybe? Impossible to say, honestly it sounds the most like a sitar) on the second verse of “Hannah Hunt.” What makes that bizarrely weepy sound even more perfect is that it shows up at the precise moment in the song when Koenig is singing about the protagonist crying “amidst those freezing beaches.” There’s another example of this on “Hudson,” the darkest, coldest and weirdest song on the record by a large margin, when the concept of a ticking clock comes up again: as Koenig sings, “the clock is such a drag,” there’s a rhythmic ticking noise for a few seconds in the right channel.

The pitch-shifting vocal effect used on songs like “Diane Young,” “Step” and “Ya Hey” is one that’s become very popular in recent years, but Batmanglij uses it in a way that still sounds fresh. The coolest trick though might be the way he makes the drums stutter and fall apart on “Hudson.” The drum sound throughout the record is absolutely fantastic, partially because the band recorded almost everything on here to tape first in an attempt to make a very “warm-sounding” record, a goal that they have accomplished beautifully.

While the lyrical world Koenig creates on this album is on one hand a continuation of the first two Vampire Weekend records and in another sense a bit of a departure, it would be fair to characterize the record musically as an almost-complete departure. The band has expressed a desire to do something completely different and wholly unfamiliar multiple times in interviews, and they certainly have done that with Modern Vampires of the City. The record almost completely eschews the band’s signature guitar style for Batmanglij’s madhouse of synthesizers and weird effects, but it works so incredibly well that you don’t miss their old sound one bit. What this band has done with this album is something that only truly great musical acts can do: rip up the carpet and do something drastically different while still somehow sounding like the same band they were before. No one’s going to mistake this for anything other than a Vampire Weekend record, despite the new sound. But it’s a different kind of Vampire Weekend record, one that favors existential dread and modern discontentment over balaclavas and sweaters, and brilliantly and bizarrely constructed orchestral arrangements over sunny and straightforward pop.

This is a truly magnificent record, and I think it’s going to end up being the album for which we remember Vampire Weekend. Years from now, they won’t be remembered as “that band who sang about commas and wore boat shoes and had a chandelier on the cover of that one album,” but rather as “that band that made that record with the picture of New York on the cover that kept me company when I was living alone, had a good job but was really unhappy and about ready to give up on my dreams at twenty-five.” Anyone who can’t mention Vampire Weekend without mentioning Paul Simon and upper-crust snobbery in the same breath is now officially missing the point by a large margin—not that they ever grasped it in the first place.

Modern Vampires of the City is the work of a band that is so much more than the band that made Vampire Weekend or even Contra, so let’s all just take a minute to bask in the glory of this album and stop talking about the fact that they went to an Ivy League college and are a bunch of light-skinned people making African-inspired music. That’s really not who they are now anyway: Ezra Koenig doesn’t want to be Paul Simon anymore, I think he wants to be the voice of his generation. Personally, I’m more than willing to let him vie for the title.

9.5/10
 
Displaying posts 1 - 15 of 126
11:54 AM on 05/10/13
#2
Chris Collum
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I realize this is a very long review, but I felt it was necessary to truly flesh out the points I wanted to make about this record. Many thanks to anyone who actually bears with me and reads the whole thing, and I hope it was worth your time.
12:11 PM on 05/10/13
#3
dannylololol
Stay Hungry. Stay Free.
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Awesome review, I'm gonna check this out because of it. Good job man.
12:13 PM on 05/10/13
#4
dunkinsdonut
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Great review. If you read this review and listen to the album you will actually finish the album first.
12:14 PM on 05/10/13
#5
Chris Collum
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Awesome review, I'm gonna check this out because of it. Good job man.
Sweet, got one! The goal is to get people to listen haha.

Great review. If you read this review and listen to the album you will actually finish the album first.
Not quite true, but it's close.
12:15 PM on 05/10/13
#6
Jason Tate
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Great review.
12:16 PM on 05/10/13
#7
Slangster
Kill the lights, I've seen too much
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Awesome review Chris. Album is phenomenal.
12:16 PM on 05/10/13
#8
Mitch
this is water
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Fantastic review. The more I listen to the album, the more I think it's one of the most impressive follow-ups I've heard in years, especially from a band that people have come to expect a certain sound from.
12:16 PM on 05/10/13
#9
Chris Collum
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Awesome review Chris. Album is phenomenal.
Fantastic review. The more I listen to the album, the more I think it's one of the most impressive follow-ups I've heard in a veryyyyyy long time, especially from a band that people have come to expect a certain sound from.

Thanks! The record is so, so good.
12:22 PM on 05/10/13
Matt Chylak
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Really nice review, Chris. You hit the nail on the head: I feel like this record is so much more thematically focused than their previous two and it really takes the songs to another level.
12:22 PM on 05/10/13
VanMastaIteHab
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Really awesome review. I agree, it's definitely their best record yet.
12:24 PM on 05/10/13
mike'smannequin
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Great review!
12:24 PM on 05/10/13
gonfreaks
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Great review and one I completely agree with. The band has put out some good music in the past but this album is on another level, truly fantastic stuff. I was fully obsessed with the record earlier this week (at least until TWFM took up all of my time). I can't imagine this not ending up pretty high on my end of the year list.
12:24 PM on 05/10/13
mikeyg003
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Fantastic review. I've been holding out listening until it comes out, but this really makes me want to listen right now.
12:25 PM on 05/10/13
brent_ster
My Dinosaur Life
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I realize this is a very long review, but I felt it was necessary to truly flesh out the points I wanted to make about this record. Many thanks to anyone who actually bears with me and reads the whole thing, and I hope it was worth your time.
Fantastic review man, got me super excited to listen to the full thing.

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