It would not be a stretch to say that Vampire Weekend’s new album, their fourth, has been a while in coming. It has been six years in fact, since their last, Modern Vampires of the City, which did nothing to dampen their reputation as nattily dressed, musically gifted brainboxes with a knack for irresistible indie-pop hooks and Radio 4-esque word play (“Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife,” etc).
But this top-line reading has always done the East Coast four-piece a disservice: yes they’re a bit arch and a bit privileged (they formed in 2006 at Columbia University), and Jared Kushner is alleged to have had one of their tracks on his Last.fm top 20 playlist, but they’re also meticulous musicians who can write devastatingly about love, death, yearning, disappointment and joy, as they do once again on the new record, Father of the Bride. So yah boo sucks to them, right?
Six years is a long time to work on a single album, but in the interim Vampire Weekend have had other concerns. Parting ways with a band member, for one: Rostam Batmanglij, who was closely involved in the writing process with front-man Ezra Koenig and produced all the previous albums, left in 2016 to work on his own projects; drummer Chris Tomson also released a solo album, bassist Chris Baio released two, and Koenig worked on Beyonce’s Lemonade.
Also, fatherhood: Koenig has moved from New York to California and had a baby with his girlfriend, the actress Rashida Jones, which also gives the new album’s title an unintended frisson: Jones’ father is Quincy, though Koenig has said the album title is unrelated. (Oh, and he also made an anime series for Netflix called Neo Yokio with voices supplied by Jaden Smith and Susan Sarandon, which was really actually quite OK.)
But the songs! The songs. Despite the diverting efforts of side projects and procreation, for Koenig the winners just keep a-coming. Eighteen made the final cut of Father of the Bride, and at times it feels they were contrarily selected to be as much of a jumble as possible, from the bass-driven jam of 'How Long' and the Morricone-esque clatter of 'Sympathy', to the bouncy jangle of 'This Life' and the mellow melancholy of 'Unbearably White' (which is ostensibly about break-up but the nod to the band’s public perception is surely no accident).
In some instances they seem to stray quite far from the Vampire Weekend playbook, as with the jazz-funk psychedelia of 'Sunflower', which features The Internet guitarist Steve Lacy, yet it is still anchored by a pernickety, scissor-sharp guitar hook: a very Koenigian touch.
Perhaps the tracks that are most likely to be divisive are the trio of duets with Danielle Haim of Haim, which dip into Johnny-and-June repartee and seem, on a first listen, a little clever-cute. “We go together like Keats and Yeats, bowls and plates, days and dates,” sings Haim on 'We Belong Together'. But then comes Koenig’s reply: “We stay United like these old States”; as is so often the case when you dig into his lyrics, things are not as peachy as they seem, on either a personally or politically existential level. “What’s the point of human beings, a Sharpie face on tangerines? Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” he sings on 'How Long'. (Koenig’s often accused of writing befuddling lyrics, but the meaning here seems pretty crystal.)
So no, Vampire Weekend haven’t gone stupid. Apologies if that’s disappointing. Instead they’re taking some risks, albeit tuneful ones (it’s like they can’t help it!), and testing their own parameters, and seeing what sticks, and not getting het up on what doesn’t – which, to be fair, isn’t much. They’re looking around themselves, and thinking about personal and civic responsibility (see Koenig’s Twitter feed for more, much more, on that). In fact, they’re doing some of their most interesting work.
For a band four albums in, it is of course good to let your borders be porous. New genres and new collaborators bring new energy (given recent and imminent output from Django Django, Mercury Rev, and The National, they’re not the only all-male indie-pop outfit who have been embracing female vocalists, figuratively of course – it’s the new dawn, remember!) and suggest that Vampire Weekend, unlike so many of their fellow countrymen, are confident enough in what they do to embrace a little change. Perhaps they should hope Jared Kushner’s still listening.
'Father of the Bride' by Vampire Weekend is out now (Columbia Records)
From: Esquire UK