In a recent track review for Drowned In Sound, Robert Leedham described “Ya Hey”, the third new cut from Modern Vampires of the City, as a ‘euphoric cocktail’ overflowing with ‘truly upsetting brilliance’ which touched that writer in a deeply personal way. Leedham’s experience with religious belief had been steadily unravelled over the years as his doubts became insurmountable, and he was eventually forced to give up his faith. But it wasn’t until “Ya Hey” that those feelings had been encapsulated in a five-minute pop song. Definitely and directly, Ezra Koenig sings: ‘Through the fire and through the flames; You won’t even say your name; Only “I am that I am”’.
It’s the most powerful statement Vampire Weekend have committed to record thus far and represents the band’s clear attempt to be more precise, more cohesive and more worthwhile on this their third album. Because up to now, it’s been difficult to pin Vampire Weekend down. On the surface, they could be just posh college kids with an ear for a good riff, but the bizarre lyrical references have baffled fans and critics alike from Washington Heights to the pueblo huts of New Mexico. (Take a quick scan over the words to Contra track “California English” if you’re after a challenge). There’s always been a resultant distance between the band and their audience – even committed fans are happier whistling along to melodies than ham-fistedly fumbling some gobbledy-gook lyrics – and this has so far stunted their development into a really ‘important’ band. Modern Vampires is the album on which the band makes that leap.
Team captain and knob-twiddler extraordinaire Rostam Batmanglij (up to now the band’s sole producer – Ariel Reichstad was called in to lend a hand on Modern Vampires) set out to make an album which sounded altogether warmer, more intimate than the often wooden-sounding rustic appeal of the band’s previous efforts. Compared to a compact little number like “Mansard Roof” or “A-Punk”, the eleven tracks here are living, breathing creatures that you can pin down and take a bite out of.
“Step” is a gorgeous orchestral pop tune which brings in the band’s trademark strings for that glowing stadium-sized sound. It’s packed full of lyrical gems too, which burrow deep inside and pluck out a memory. Ezra’s breathy chorus line ‘The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out’ bewitches as it hangs lucidly over the sombre piano melody. ‘Hannah Hunt’ is another piece of stunning balladry, recounting Ezra’s dreamlike journey with an old school friend: ‘Our days were long; Our nights no longer; Though we live on the US dollar; You and me, we got our own sense of time’. On ‘Everlasting Arms’ it’s as if Vampire Weekend have finally become Simon and Garfunkel, evoking “You Can Call Me Al” with another enchanting vocal line and a meandering bass hook reminiscent of Contra’s “Giving Up The Gun”.
Of course, there’s a handful of catchy-as-hell toe-tappers thrown in for good measure. “Unbelievers” bops along to an irresistible organ melody while Ezra yelps some more spiritual musings: ‘Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me? Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train’. It’s another abundantly positive reaction to some pretty uncertain feelings. Death and futility crop up here and there on the album, but Ezra knocks them back with a cheery self-confidence and a ‘healthy sense of worth’. Even if some of the effects are a little gauche, “Diane Young” works to the same mantra, channelling the prospect of an early demise into a source of optimism. The racy fireballer “Finger Back” is one of the maddest things they’ve ever come up with, while the yodelly vocal line on “Worship You” rounds off the crazy. It’s when Koenig and Batmanglij work together as balladeers though that they are at their most unstoppable, and the closing trio of “Ya Hey”, “Hudson” and “Young Lion” signs off the album with a flourish.
Modern Vampires is without question Vampire Weekend’s most complete and most ambitious record to date. Not only does it see them push their quaint indie-pop jangle in new sonic directions, but it sees them tackle much grander themes which together, go some way to putting a face to the name. Campuses and common rooms conquered, Vampire Weekend are on course with their third album, to establish themselves among the elite of alternative pop.
Listening to: Edwyn Collins – ‘Losing Sleep’