On Vampire Weekend’s ambitious new album, which contrasts the band’s most upbeat music with some of its darkest lyrics, the New York three-piece has staked its claim to longevity.By Shaad D’Souza.
Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride
Vampire Weekend records have always, in one way or another, been about legacy. Their 2008 self-titled debut and its 2010 follow-up, Contra, dealt with the lasting impact of privilege and the aftermath of conflict; 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City found the New York quartet fretting over what they’ll leave behind after their death. The elemental emotional resonance of their music seems to be born from a contradiction: Vampire Weekend often trade in sounds that evoke nostalgia while articulating ideas that question nostalgia altogether. It’s a heady combination, and one that has made them one of the most famous indie bands in the world.
While on the press circuit for Father of the Bride, the band’s first album since Modern Vampires, frontman Ezra Koenig articulated that this album, like the others, is about legacy – although this time, he explained, they were thinking a little more actively about it. Speaking to an intimate crowd at a Sydney pub during a listening session in July, Koenig said that Vampire Weekend jumped ship from their long-time home of XL Recordings – the prestigious indie label that launched the careers of Adele, Dizzee Rascal and M. I. A., among others – to Columbia Records, an imprint of Sony, not because of money but because of legacy. Columbia, Koenig explained, was the label of Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, The Clash; Vampire Weekend wanted to be part of that lineage.
This aspect of Father of the Bride’s creation tells you a lot about the album. It feels like a concerted effort at a hefty, significant record that stands separate from the rest of the Vampire Weekend oeuvre, that’s dense and knotty and will last for generations. And in many ways, the 18-track, 58-minute behemoth lives up to that task; Father of the Bride is a strange and complicated new work from a band that, after reaching a perceived peak with Modern Vampires, seemed as though they had nothing left to give. The album doesn’t always work – many of the band’s biggest risks fall flat – but even with its failings, Father of the Bride is hard evidence that Vampire Weekend are a band operating at a higher level than most.
A lot has changed since Vampire Weekend last released an album. Koenig has gone from indie rock celeb and internet hero to fully fledged minor star, releasing a Netflix anime series starring Jaden Smith, hosting a beloved radio show on Apple Music’s Beats 1, and working on Beyoncé’s 2016 album, Lemonade. And like so many other indie rock musicians who came up in the 2000s New York scene, Koenig has decamped to Los Angeles. In other words, he’s a long way from the band’s beginnings as Columbia University graduates writing about rich kids and Upper West Side falafel shops.
Father of the Bride is also the band’s first album without founding member, producer and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij. Batmanglij often felt like Vampire Weekend’s secret weapon; he co-wrote a lot of lyrics with Koenig, and his subtle, inventive production flourishes – such as the M. I. A. sample on Contra’s “Diplomat’s Son” or the helium voices on Modern Vampires’ “Ya Hey” – initially pushed Vampire Weekend head and shoulders above the crowd. When Batmanglij’s departure was announced in 2016, it almost seemed a death sentence: his production often felt like the weird heart that made Koenig’s increasingly highbrow lyrics relatable.
So it’s strange to listen to Father of the Bride and realise how much it sounds like the old Vampire Weekend. Production-wise, there are only traces of Batmanglij’s legacy here with most of the production handled by Ariel Rechtshaid, who tends to make things warmer and looser than Batmanglij. But the album still feels drawn from the same well as the band’s first three records: bright, Graceland-style guitars gleam on the highlights “Rich Man” and “This Life”; Koenig’s lyrics still reference both theology and pop culture; and the band retain a remarkable grasp on how to write darker songs without stalling momentum.
More than anything else, Koenig’s lyrics have always been – and will likely always be – hugely concerned with wealth, class and privilege. While those themes have historically been couched in Koenig’s verbose intellectualism, on Father of the Bride they manifest in raw and uncomfortable ways. On lead single “Harmony Hall”, Koenig laments the presence of hatred and libertarianism (“of wicked snakes”) in Columbia University, and America in general. The song is upbeat, shaggier than most Vampire Weekend songs, almost like an overcorrection in the face of some of the darkest lyrics the band have ever recorded. On “Bambina”, Koenig sings of injustice and “the flames that are filling up the room”, and can’t see any way out; institutional aid can’t help.
There is a deep unease on Father of the Bride, even more so than on the paranoid-to-its-core Modern Vampires; it’s just a little hard to make out underneath the record’s hooky veneer. “This Life”, one of the best songs on the record, sees Koenig coming face to face with his own privilege:
I’ve been cheating on, cheating on you
You’ve been cheating on me
But I’ve been cheating through this life
And all its suffering
It’s some of the most transparent self-analysis Koenig has ever written, and it’s delivered without any tongue-in-cheek humour. The grand irony of it all, of course, is that Father of the Bride comprises some of the most deliriously fun music Vampire Weekend have made.
If Father of the Bride were simply an exercise in retaining the band’s core identity after the loss of a key member, it’d be a marked success. But you can hear them stretching themselves more than ever here; often, the record feels like an experiment in how strange they can make their music before it becomes unrecognisable. There are wonderful moments on Father of the Bride that seem absolutely bonkers in abstract: the sweeping, choral Hans Zimmer sample on opener “Hold You Now”; the delightfully deranged strings on “Rich Man”, a folk song about one-percenters; the scatting (!) on the Steve Lacy-assisted single “Sunflower”.
The natural byproduct of this experimentation is the odd superfluous track. “Sympathy”, a heart-pounding thumper that sounds a lot, oddly, like Paul Kelly, seems like a draft when compared with the surrounding songs; and “My Mistake”, with its lounge jazz piano, can’t help feeling like a musical theatre number, despite lovely production. These songs are in no way failures; they still brim with fascinating sounds and typically beautiful turns of phrase. It’s just jarring to hear a Vampire Weekend album that’s so intentionally messy after a trilogy that had every hair in place.
Some of the album’s excess can be chalked up to the laundry list of collaborators. On Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend collaborated widely for the first time, bringing in producers such as BloodPop (Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”) and DJ Dahi (Drake, Kendrick Lamar). Danielle Haim, lead singer and drummer of the California rock band Haim, also appears throughout, singing three country duets with Koenig and providing backing vocals on a handful of other songs. While the additional producers add their own flourishes – BloodPop’s trap bass on closer “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”; Dahi’s tinny drums on “Big Blue” – it’s Haim who makes the most impact on the record. The warmth of her voice lends the band an earthiness they’ve been aiming for since Modern Vampires, a quality that Koenig’s choirboy voice has never quite been able to achieve.
Vampire Weekend never particularly seemed like a band built to last; their music, in the early years, was often disregarded as preppy pop music for rich city kids – which maybe it was. So it’s a minor miracle that, six years on from an album that felt like their last, they’ve returned with music that’s as good as – if not better – than it’s ever been. Father of the Bride is unashamedly goofy and deadly serious in equal measure, almost always contradictory and confusing. It’s by no means a masterpiece; it is, however, the stuff legacies are made of.
MULTIMEDIA Hot Blood
White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, until August 4
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VIRTUAL REALITY David Attenborough’s Barrier Reef Dive VR
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VISUAL ART A Fairy Tale in Red Times: Works from the White Rabbit Collection
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FASHION Fashion Week Australia
Venues throughout Sydney, May 12-17
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Australian Design Centre, Sydney, until June 5
GLASS ART Tom Malone Prize: 2019
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Fangs for the memories". Subscribe here.