Review: “Modern Vampires of the City” by Vampire Weekend

Just recently I happened to stumble upon Paul Simon’s classic album “Graceland” while scrounging through my dad’s vinyl collection. I only knew Simon as the other half of Simon and Garfunkel before this; the one with the afro, not the pop genius evident on “Graceland.” But “Graceland” wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pop album; its sound was warm, its lyrics were poetic. Simon’s tour de force was ambitious and drew from cultures around the world — a little bit of Afrobeat there and some American folk here — which made it stand out from the rest of 1980’s music that was dominated by new wave and hard rock ballads.

It is for these reasons that I understand where people are coming from when they compare “Graceland” to Vampire Weekend’s early work. Both Simon and Vampire Weekend have always shared a love for worldbeat, a love for teetering on the edge of pop, but on “Modern Vampires of the City,” the two have never sounded more similar. The two have also never sounded so substantially different.

Experimentation and maturity are the name of the game on Vampire Weekend’s first release since 2010’s “Contra,” an album that mirrored the band’s debut so closely that it could almost be considered a disappointment. Lucky for us, “Modern Vampires of the City” doesn’t fall in line with Vampire Weekend’s first two albums; gone are the days of the oxford comma and Target commercial tunes, and in its place is well-crafted indie pop.

Yes, the catchiness still lingers on in tracks like “Finger Back,” as do the elements of baroque pop and world music that made the group’s first two albums so unique: Vampire Weekend’s magnum opus, “Step,” a track so lyrically dense that it’s almost incomprehensible, features a glowing harpsichord, and “Everlasting Arms” has an African tribal beat similar to “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

The similarities pretty much end there. With “Modern Vampires of the City,” the band takes a left turn, but it’s a left turn that almost seems like a right. The songs are more somber, the lyrics are more mature, and the songwriting is more artistic than ever. The bizarrely popular “Diane Young” epitomizes the band’s new direction; its distorted vocals and almost indefinable sax line makes it painfully, yet beautifully, stick out amongst other tracks on the album.

“Ya Hey” is a little more off-putting than “Diane Young” upon first listen; Ezra Koenig shouts “Ya hey” in a high-pitched voice reminiscent of Alvin and the Chipmunks. It may leave you with a bad aftertaste at first, but after one, maybe two, more listens, it’s a tasty morsel and a breath of fresh air that quickly becomes the most welcoming of the uptempo tracks on “Modern Vampires of the City.”

Even the slower songs manage to keep the listener on edge and bring something new to the table. “Obvious Bicycle” seems to be an inappropriate opener, slow and lackadaisical, simply drifting along with no real destination. Just when you begin to ask “when is it going to pick up?” it explodes into the Buddy Holly-esque “Unbelievers.” “Hannah Hunt” is of similar structure, slowly building before it opens the floodgates in the final minute. Koenig cries “If I can’t trust you, then damn it Hannah/There’s no future, there’s no answer” as your heart can’t help but flutter.

The real beauty of the album, however, lies in Koenig’s lyrical and vocal performance, which is undoubtedly his strongest to date. His lyrics deal with unemployment (“Obvious Bicycle”), religion (“Unbelievers,” “Worship You”), and most of all, mortality. On the rhythm heavy track “Don’t Lie,” Koenig inquisitively sings “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.” And of course, there’s the double entendre in “Diane Young,” a play on words that sounds more like “dying young” in the song’s hook. The lyrics are obviously darker and more mature, making this a coming-of-age of sorts for Koenig.

But Koenig is not the only band member who deserves the spotlight. The unsung heroes of “Modern Vampires of the City” are keyboardist Batmanglij and drummer Chris Tomson. Batmanglij fills each and every track with little trinkets of noise that make for pleasant surprises upon future listens, and Tomson’s commanding drums induce foot stomping and sets the mood for each track. From his snare rattle on the ominous “Hudson” to the jovial “Finger Back,” where his drumming makes the track noteworthy, Tomson’s presence is more apparent than ever.

“Modern Vampires of the City” is the group’s most complete and dynamic work. It’s a collective effort that can only be summed up by the album’s closer, a simple track entitled “Young Lion.” Batmanglij plucks (really, it’s anything but that) a tune on the piano as he repeats the same six words four times: “You take your time, young lion.” It’s a thought provoking piece that embodies Vampire Weekend; they’ve taken their time with this record and they’ve taken their time to mature, and the results are unbelievably gorgeous. 9.5/10