The title of Modern Vampires Of The City, the third album from Vampire Weekend, seems like it riffs on the band’s name and on its members’ status as sharp and witty New York men-about-town, guys who play punny word-games on their Twitter accounts and make cameo appearances on Girls and maintain none-too-serious Soundcloud side projects. If that were the case, it’d be perfectly in keeping with the band’s beautifully manicured persona; no other band has come anywhere near their grasp of the Whit Stillman/Noah Baumbach universe of idle and well-heeled and overeducated young New York life. But that’s not what they’re doing with that title — or, anyway, that’s not all they’re doing. As it happens, the album’s title of the city is the first thing that dancehall fire-bringer Junior Reid yells on his 1989 anthem “One Blood.” And even though Reid’s singing about pan-racial unity on that song, when you hear him wail those words — or hear them sampled on the Wu-Tang Clan’s “One Blood Under W” or Game’s “It’s Okay (One Blood)” — they sound unforgiving and apocalyptic. And while nothing on Vampire Weekend’s album evokes that sort of shiver, they do use the album to explore big ideas and bigger fears. They interrogate those shivers. Modern Vampires is not a musical comedy of manners. It’s an expertly executed weird-pop album about death and fear and the unknown. And it’s beautiful.
It’s never been entirely clear what Ezra Koenig’s been singing about; he’s been burying his feelings deep in oblique cultural references and sideways allusions since we first met him. And god knows, he spends plenty of time on Modern Vampires playing word games, tossing out quotes and namechecks, calling back to half-obscure early-’90s rap or a “young girl in Berkeley with her Communist reader.” But more often than usual, he yanks back those curtains that he knitted so carefully and lets us see what’s behind them. Consider, from “Diane Young” (only titled as such because the band thought “Dying Young” was too on-the-nose): “Nobody knows what the future holds / And it’s bad enough just getting old / Live my life in self-defense / You know I love the past cuz I hate suspense.” That’s a pretty powerful admission of personal weakness, and it also gets at something dark behind the entire concept of nostalgia. Or this, from “Step“: “We know the true death, the true way of all flesh / Everyone’s dying, but girl, you’re not old yet” — an acknowledgement of the inevitable, a reassurance, and maybe a come-on, too.
“Worship You” finds Koenig singing quickly and nimbly, like an auctioneer, or like Twista, but he’s wondering what people see in the idea of an authoritarian God: “Everlasting praise you wanted / Everlasting praise you wanted / Little bit of light to get us through the final days.” And then, a song later on “Ya Hey,” Koenig catches a little glimpse of the divine himself when he hears a DJ transitioning from Desmond Dekker into the Rolling Stones during a festival sunset. “Obvious Bicycle,” the opener, is about the hopeless feeling that nobody’s noticing you, paying you attention, and “Unbelievers,” which follows, is a sort of anthem of ambiguity, a celebration that none of us know how the future works and that we all end up living with people whose ideas make no sense to us anyway.
This is frightening stuff, but the album comes across as something warm and comforting and welcoming. It dangles us over the abyss, but then it pulls us up and gives us a hug. And that hug mostly comes in the form of the melodies, which are somehow even prettier than the ones on the last two Vampire Weekend albums. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij are just dangerously sharp hooksmiths, guys whose songs slip into your soul upon contact. Musically, it’ll be a while before I know where Modern Vampires ranks with the band’s first two albums, since both of them proved way more durable than anyone expected at the time. But after a few days of constant rotation, the album already feels like an old friend, just like the other two do.
This is the first time the band has worked with an outside producer, but they found the exact right guy. Ariel Reichstadt is probably the only person on the planet who’s worked with both Cass McCombs and Usher, and he’s one of the low-key MVPs of the past year of popular music, an instrumental figure in helping solid-gold stars like Solange and Charli XCX find an unexplored middle ground between indie warmth and chartpop sheen. And there are a ton of moving parts in play here: Shivery harpsichords, sighing organs, flighty little string-rondos, quiet bursts of surf-guitar. It’s the busiest Vampire Weekend album, and that gets away from them sometimes. “Diane Young,” with its rockabilly hiccups and synth-bass fart-stabs, feels like the band’s attempt at Basement Jaxx-style antic clutter, and it’s probably my least favorite Vampire Weekend song since “Blake’s Got A New Face.” The fast songs, in fact, generally don’t find that adrenalized directness that “A-Punk” or “Cousins” had. But even some of those fast songs are just heart-stoppingly pretty, and the slower ones even more so. Koenig has grown into an idiosyncratic but awesomely assured pop frontman, and the way he stretches out the words “don’t wait” on “Obvious Bicycle” might make for the strongest moment he’s ever had as a singer. And a moment that seems like it could be a throwaway, when “Finger Back” goes quiet and Koenig gives a short monolog about cross-cultural love, is practically a novel unto itself, but it comes and goes with at the perfect moment.
So once again, Vampire Weekend have given us a glimmering and immediately lovable pop record, one that has so many currents and thoughts and feelings running through it that certain lines might not make sense to us until a random lyric emerges from iTunes shuffle and slaps us upside the head a year from now. They’ve done it again — three for three, three amazing albums in three attempts. We’re very, very lucky to have them around.