Just one month after Rice's 2013 spring semester, Vampire Weekend released its best album yet and potentially the best album of 2013. Modern Vampires of the City continues the band's signature style and carries with it a whole host of new influences, from scat to 90s gangsta rap to hymnals. But as the band members approach their 30s, themes of aging and maturity take their content in a dramatic and bold new direction, something unseen on previous albums.
Vampire Weekend's 2008 self-titled debut record was met with wide critical acclaim for its unique afro-pop sound and vivid imagery, detailing the New England adventures of the band's four young Columbia University graduates. 2010's Contra moved the band's sound to a slower, more spacey dimension, telling stories of traveling, places, people and the idea of being famous in one's 20s. Modern Vampires of The City, which took the band an admittedly long time to write and record, reflects on the band's younger years and faces the challenge of growing up and being an adult in the youth-centric 21st century. Together, the three albums make a nice trilogy.
The beginning of Modern Vampires is riddled with fear and anxiousness. Lead single "Diane Young" (as lead singer Ezra Koenig stated: "The world doesn't need a song called 'Dying Young.'") describes a youth who leads her life to the fullest, dangerous as that may be. The fast pace and unpredictable dynamics suitably frame the song as a wild drive through the night. Young agnostics debate the existence of God and what that means for them in "Unbelievers." As Koenig states, "What holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?" The song is ironically (or not) driven by the familiar bleating of a church organ. "Don't Lie" discusses the sadness and confusion that comes with death at an early age, all while remaining calm and thoughtful in a reflection on the postmortem shock we all feel when a loved one has been cut down too soon. Despite the weight of these messages, the band never sounds like it is lecturing; rather, it is describing a feeling familiar to its generation.
Although Vampire Weekend keeps the theme of youthful anxiety present throughout the album, its flair for the descriptive remains abundant. "Hannah Hunt" details the dissolved relationship of two lovers who seek out the West Coast as a possible savior for their struggles, taking the listener with them to Providence, Phoenix, Waverly, Lincoln and Santa Barbara. The song's coda is a high point on the album. The music breaks from the low-key bass and toms and erupts into a piano- and organ-driven burst of untapped energy while Koenig shouts "If I can't trust you, then damnit Hannah, there's no future, there's no answer!" The familiar fear of an uncertain future proves to be the couple's downfall. "Worship You" is an homage to the group's hometown of New York City, which is described as a "city with the blessing of a never-ending grace upon it." The song's quick pace and scat-style lyrics embody the energy and hustle of downtown Manhattan.
One facet of Modern Vampires that reveals itself on repeated listens is the importance of all four band members. Chris Tomson's percussion sets the tone for every track, whether it be the shotgun triplets on "Worship You" or the snare-rolling death march that creates the eeriness of "Hudson." Chris Baio's bending, bouncing bass notes give "Everlasting Arms" the warm, encompassing feel the lyrics describe, and his fuzz on "Finger Back" makes the track one of the album's edgiest rock outputs. And Rostam Batmanglij, who co-produced the album and is responsible for sounds ranging from synths to strings to lead guitar, creates the anthemic, ethereal feel of "Ya Hey" with his baroque style arpeggios and adds much-needed punch to "Diane Young" with his sprawling, frantic guitar solo.
But it is Koenig's lyrics that elevate Modern Vampires from an excellent indie-pop record to a transcendent album for the ages. And nowhere in Vampire Weekend's catalog has he penned more eloquent and pensive lyrics than on the gorgeous standout single "Step." Place names and their relevant associations are beautifully linked together like the lines of a forgotten haiku, all while Batmanglij tiptoes Pachelbel's Canon on harpsichord. Then the chorus breaks, and Koenig heartbreakingly prepares for the beginning of adulthood: "The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out / ... I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones / I'm stronger now, I'm ready for the house / Such a modest mouse, I can't do it alone." The album's best line and perfect summation, however, comes in the final verse. "Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth." Damned if Vampire Weekend doesn't have both.