While Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig has said the band's latest release, Modern Vampires of The City, is the final installment in a trilogy, the record finds the band opening far more doors than they close. Sure, there are plenty of classic Vampire Weekend moments, where Ezra Koenig's falsetto warbles inscrutable lyrics over one of Rostam Batmanglij's dub-inspired soundscapes. But there is also a sense of something lurking on the horizon. Modern Vampires of The City feels like the kind of transitional album bands sometimes have to make. Thankfully, they have managed to turn their artistic wrangling into a thoroughly satisfying, complete record.
Starting with their 2008 self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend have always had a well crafted, easily identifiable sound, and there is nothing on Modern Vampires of The City that represents a radical departure for their songs of the past. But what does stand out is the wide variety of sounds and textures the band is able to weave into a four minute pop song. Take "Step" for example: A homage to the Souls of Mischief's song "Step to The Girl", Koenig delivers the verses in a broken, spoken style, name checking everyone from Run-DMC to Croesus over a disjointed reproduction of the Souls of Mischief bass line. The chorus is sung to the melody of the saxophone sample from the original, all while a harpsichord pompously marches on. And here lies the genius of Vampire Weekend. While critics have taken plenty of shots their Ivy League pedigree, they are omnivorous listeners who easily absorb and re-imagine incredible swaths of culture. They are cosmopolitan, not in the isolated elitist sort of way, but rather in the multicultural way in which the word is actually defined. Of course, it is all filtered through their Upper West Side perspective; to try to do anything else would be, well...pretentious.
The album is rich in the sort of pop experimentation we've come to expect from Vampire Weekend. "Diane Young" with its driving backbeat and "baby-baby-baby" chorus--reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll"--is a 21st century take on the classic Rock & Roll trope of perusing freedom through reckless decision making, and "Hannah Hunt" presents a dreamlike sound collage. Throughout the albums sounds come and go in waves--papery drums, multi-layered vocals, a fretless bass, a calopie-esque keyboard, a piano in the a joining room, and fuzzy guitars freely fade in and out. There seems to be no limit to the possible combinations of sounds available.
It is in the lyrics where we see the band searching. Overall, the album has a much darker feel. From the opening track, "Occasional Bicycle" about an unemployed man, the album is permeated with disillusionment and questioning, mostly centering on questions of identity. We hear the lads wrestling with faith, nationalism, and aging. It's worth noting that singer Ezra Koenig very seriously considered walking away from music before recording the album and there is a strong sense of a "but what does it all mean?" musing to the album. Rather than in grand statements or corny hypotheticals, the big ideas of this album are found in small things--plants that move, newspapers used for kindling. As the album progresses the questions of age and identity become a little overbearing. The track "Hudson" for example, feels a little too much like an epic to have come from some cynical millennials. Still for most of the album, the band strikes a perfect balance between delivering enough obscure references to keep bloggers busy while providing plenty of catchy melodies and hooks to keep everyone else singing along. Modern Vampires of the City is challenging, but not exhausting, and it gives listeners the sense that there are infinite possibilities in pop music. We can only dream of what may come next.