The news that Rostam Batmanglij is leaving Vampire Weekend could be construed as the band’s death knell — if not literally, at least creatively. The group’s best-known factor has always been Ezra Koenig, a gifted singer-songwriter with a knack for masking his melancholy with cosmopolitan wit and whimsy. There is no Vampire Weekend without Ezra Koenig. But anyone who identifies as a Vampire Weekend fan or who pays any attention pop’s critical mainstream realizes Batmanglij contributed just as much to this band. His sonic framework lent depth and flavor to Koenig’s musings, both providing a musical pedigree to back up the intellectual posturing and charging the singer’s detached narratives with emotional weight. Koenig rendered Vampire Weekend catchy and clever; Batmanglij made them great.
Never were they greater than on 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City, an album that confirmed frontman Koenig and producer-arranger Batmanglij as one of pop’s elite partnerships. With all due respect to the band’s underrated rhythm section, Chris Baio and Chris Tomson, and to producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who was on a roll that year, MVOTC was the moment Koenig and Batmanglij elevated their potent creative chemistry to genius level.
No one loved that album more than me. “[2013’s] most beautiful, timely, resonant record,” I called it. “An instant classic LP that sealed Vampire Weekend’s legacy as one of the finest bands of their generation,” I called it. It is so obviously one of the finest albums my generation will ever produce. It turned me into a Vampire Weekend stan forever. So why am I more or less OK with Batmanglij leaving the band?
For one thing, Vampire Weekend have never been a live powerhouse. Although their shows are always fun, these guys are merely proficient performers with an increasingly amazing catalog. None of them are known for their electric stage presence. So it doesn’t really matter whether Batmanglij is on stage with them. They might even get better by replacing him with a handful of new musicians — like, say, these guys — and bringing their live show more in line with their studio sound.
Vampire Weekend didn’t really sound like a traditional four-person rock band on Modern Vampires Of The City anyway. That’s a big part of the album’s appeal, the way it transcended the rock band paradigm, gracefully defying easy categorization. At a time when countless indie bands were plunging headfirst into mainstream pop and R&B, often in ways that felt like craven crossover attempts, Vampire Weekend evolved in a way that felt natural and good and right. Their metamorphosis was timely, but it yielded timeless results.
The far bigger fear for fans would be losing out on the studio collaboration responsible for all that goodness. But the message from both Koenig and Batmanglij is that the new Vampire Weekend will not really be post-Rostam in any practical sense. Per Rostam: “Ezra and I will continue to collaborate on future projects + future VW songs.” Per Ezra: “Rostam and I sat down at his house & talked abt whether our collaboration was dependent on being members of the same band. We both firmly agreed that nope, it was not. In fact, we agreed that our collaboration was more important.” It sounds like the change is largely semantic, a chance for Batmanglij to pursue his own vision and assert his own agency. These days, it’s a lot more prestigious to be a hotshot freelance producer than a supporting player in a rock band.
It’s relieving to know that Batmanglij will still be around to apply his magic to Vampire Weekend’s music. But it’s also intriguing to know that he won’t be around all the time. After dropping a masterpiece like Modern Vampires Of The City on us, the band can’t just retreat back into their wheelhouse. They need to find a way to keep growing, and tweaking the lineup is one exciting way to try. Having closed out an exceptional coming-of-age trilogy — their preppy white analogue to The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, if you will — it’s time for a radical departure. It’s time for Vampire Weekend to make their 808s & Heartbreak.
I mention 808s in part because my original Kid A comparison didn’t quite fit, but also because as a blueprint for Vampire Weekend’s next step it might not be so far from the truth. Koenig has already proven he can do amazing things outside the context of his main band, and one of the best of them was his depressive sing-song rap verse on iLoveMakonnen’s “Down 4 So Long” remix. So maybe they’ll make a whole album of that! I’m not sure I want Vampire Weekend to veer off in a direction I can so easily predict — though an Ezra Koenig rap mixtape is certainly welcome — but if they’re going to keep up this hot streak, some kind of transformation is in order. And Batmanglij’s quasi-departure is nothing if not some kind of transformation.