Premature Evaluation: Vampire Weekend Father Of The Bride
“Things have never been stranger,” a chorus of voices calls out near the end of the new Vampire Weekend album. In cascading folk-rock harmonies, their message continues: “Things are gonna stay strange.” Consider it a thesis statement for Father Of The Bride, the band’s first album in six years and quite possibly their magnum opus.
Recency bias may be informing Koenig’s assessment (and mine), but his point begins to feel undeniable when you think about how much has changed since Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires Of The City in 2013. Certainly his own personal life has undergone a metamorphosis. In the interim between albums, the former precocious Ivy League kid has aged into his mid-thirties, relocated from New York to Los Angeles, settled down with actress Rashida Jones, become a father, launched an online radio show through Apple Music and an anime series via Netflix, undergone a political awakening, and apparently cultivated an abiding affection for the Grateful Dead.
But much of that is normal growing-up stuff. The adjustments in Koenig’s own life feel minor compared to the way society at large has transformed. Worldwide, fascism sometimes seems to be rising even faster than the sea level. Culture warriors seize upon the most benign statements in bad faith to feed a bottomless hunger for outrage. Bullets regularly rain down on schoolchildren. Realities that used to be jarring and unsettling are now the air we breathe. Say this out loud to remind yourself how crazy it is: Donald Trump is president of the United States.
Any thinking person has a lot to wrap their mind around these days. In doing so, one of rock’s most thoughtful songwriters has given us much to unpack. At 18 tracks, Father Of The Bride is both dense and sprawling, rich with ideas and Easter eggs and dazzling musical flourishes. Koenig considers it a double album, but unlike recent two-disc streaming grabs from Drake and Migos, not a second feels wasted. Although much of it defies easy interpretation, taken together the project’s themes resonate loudly into this moment. It also works wonders as summertime backyard party music.
Modern Vampires Of The City found Koenig suddenly conscious of his finiteness and increasingly jaded about the workings of this world. “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth,” he sang. “Age is an honor — it’s still not the truth.” It was an album about mortality, about getting older and suddenly feeling out of place in familiar surroundings. Whereas Father Of The Bride is largely about finding your place in unfamiliar settings, making sense of a new life in a world that’s far more broken than you realized. For Koenig, doing so involves taking himself less seriously but also interacting with the outside world in a more earnest, engaged capacity. His music has become scragglier yet no less meticulous. Rather than merely flexing his intellect, his canny observations now seem geared toward making a difference in the world.
“On our first album, most of the songs were written in college, and it had a very youthful vibe,” Koenig told Rolling Stone. “On the second and third records, the wide-eyed enthusiasm dimmed considerably. You see more of the world, and you’re more and more disheartened. But that trajectory can’t go on forever. After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper. This is the life-goes-on record.”
For Vampire Weekend, it goes on without co-founder and studio mastermind Rostam Batmanglij, who amicably departed in 2016 to pursue his solo career. Rostam remained involved on a few Father Of The Bride tracks, but Koenig and his new right-hand man, Modern Vampires Of The City co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid, brought a number of new collaborators into the fold too. Among them are rap producer DJ Dahi, Grimes and Justin Bieber associate BloodPop®, guitarist Steve Lacy of neo-R&B band the Internet, and Danielle Haim of glossy SoCal pop-rockers Haim, whose voice is so prominent in both lead and background roles that she basically functions as a member of Vampire Weekend here.
Despite the sound you might imagine based on those names — plus Koenig’s Modern Vampires-era guest vocals on tracks by SBTRKT and iLoveMakonnen, plus his subsequent involvement with the likes of Beyoncé and Kanye West — Father Of The Bride is not a pop crossover move. Around the release of the last album, Koenig talked about his creative process drifting away from a rock-band formulation, and although rhythm section Chris Baio and Chris Tomson remain in the band, Vampire Weekend feels more like a Koenig solo project than ever. Yet his tastes have taken a turn for what he and Time Crisis co-host Jake Longstreth (David’s brother) like to call “the tasteful palette of the ’70s,” with special emphasis on the Dead.
Thus Father Of The Bride presents an earthier, folksier, looser Vampire Weekend than ever before. The African pop influences of their early days largely have given way to a wide range of Americana guitar stylings, the East Coast locales replaced with California landmarks. It’s still unmistakably Vampire Weekend, though. The group’s foundational chamber-pop DNA remains: behold the baroque piano breakdown in “Harmony Hall” or the string section that gracefully dances across “Rich Man” or the choral excerpt from Hans Zimmer’s The Thin Red Line score on opener “Hold You Now.” And the fundamentally organic production is still laced with the subtle electronic elements and vocal manipulations that emerged on Contra and Modern Vampires.
The results often sound like roots music through an LCD screen — a surprising twist for a band that has always been metropolitan to a fault, but one that fits perfectly with Koenig’s new domestic West Coast life. Still, despite the George Harrison-via-Wilco vibes of “Big Blue,” the cinematic soul groove of “Unbearably White,” and the Phish-damaged guitar scat of “Sunflower,” it’s not as simple as Vampire Weekend evolving into the dad-rock jam-band of the future. (Nothing is ever simple with these guys.) The album’s scope is wide enough to include “2021,” a tender ballad lifted almost wholesale from Japanese electronic pop trailblazer Haruomi Hosono, and “My Mistake,” a soft-rock lounge-singer collage crafted with Oscar-winning Black Panther composer and Childish Gambino consigliere Ludwig Göransson.
Onto that broad canvas Koenig scripts narratives about huge, big-picture topics. It’s no coincidence that the album art features a zoomed-out view of Earth. In that Rolling Stone interview, Koenig said Father Of The Bride is “about the ties that bind, the relationships between communities, between humans and God, between people and the land they live on.” Lately the extent to which those relationships have been strained has taken some of the more privileged among us by surprise, Koenig (and myself) included. “Unbearably White” seems to fess up to this: “It’s hard on the body/ It’s hard on the mind/ To learn what kept us together, darling/ Is what kept us alive.” And amidst the glorious folk-jam-rave-pop machinery of lead single “Harmony Hall,” Koenig posits, “I thought that I was free from all that questioning/ But every time a problem ends, another one begins.”
Father Of The Bride addresses those problems artfully, with the erudite wordplay that has always been Koenig’s speciality. Among the most prominent recurring subjects is climate change and people’s lack of urgency toward saving their dying planet. “How Long” pictures a world underwater and casts shade on those who opted out of using their votes to prevent it. On the rippling digital puddle “Spring Snow” Koenig bemoans, “The seasons we had don’t mean anything.” And “Flower Moon” laments, “Suddenly, it’s much too late/ The rising tide’s already lapping at the gate.”
Elsewhere he examines the corrosive effects of wealth, multiplying woes with each new zero column on the cleverly constructed “Rich Man.” “Bambina,” a jaunty rocker that probably comes closest to the classic Vampire Weekend sound, centers on a character who can afford to stay above the fray, whose “Christian heart cannot withstand the thundering arena.” Speaking of Christians and of thundering arenas, the album’s loudest and most chaotic song “Sympathy” mirrors a world where alliances are forged over shared resentment. “Harmony Hall” fits in a dig on the echo chambers that often ensue within these angry coalitions. Repeatedly, Koenig kicks himself for being so naive about human behavior: “Hoping for kindness was my greatest mistake.”
Throughout Father Of The Bride, compromised marriages become a metaphor for the issues tearing our world apart. Usually these statements take the form of duets with Haim. The ornate folk ballad “Hold You Now” begins the album with an affair on the eve of a wedding, hinting at a union that was never as unified as we liked to pretend. The computerized country duet “Morning In A Gold Rush” presents fools who rushed in trying to rebuild their marriage on a lasting foundation, perhaps a stand-in for the disparate factions within the #resistance who now must figure out how to get along. Marked by gorgeous piano twinkles like jewels tumbling down a staircase, closer “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” begins, “I know I loved you then/ I think I love you still,” before moving on to comments on Palestine and a plea against “that genocidal feeling that beats in every heart.”
Many of these themes converge on “This Life,” a wonderfully breezy retro pop-rocker featuring some of the sharpest writing of Vampire Weekend’s career. Few artists besides Koenig could successfully translate a swiped Makonnen hook into a finger-snapper on that “Brown Eyed Girl” wavelength — though notably one of them is “This Life” cowriter Mark Ronson, a Rashida Jones ex(!) who similarly funneled Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything” into his masterpiece “Uptown Funk!” The lyrics stem from a series of Koenig’s harsh revelations, from the personal (“Baby, I know pain is as natural as the rain/ But I thought it didn’t rain in California”) to the societal (“Baby, I know hate’s always waiting at the gate/ But I thought we locked the gate when we left in the morning”). It’s another story of a fractured romance, its refrain confessing, “You’ve been cheating on me/ And I’ve been cheating on you.”
Is this stuff autobiographical? Probably not. Koenig has been writing character sketches his whole career, and regarding his latest round of songs, he told GQ, “The people in ‘Oxford Comma’ and ‘White Sky’ and ‘Step’ — I had this feeling this is where those people are now. Like, this is where all this shit ended up.” On the other hand, there are probably glimpses of his real life strewn amongst all the allegory because you write what you know — and because at least one song references his current situation directly.
On a pair of songs near the end of the album, all the marital discord turns to bliss. Perhaps it begins with “Flower Moon,” when we’re told a new chapter begins, or “2021,” where Koenig seems to be floating a deadline for a potential wedding of his own. But the joy properly kicks in with “We Belong Together,” a charming lovey-dovey exchange with Haim featuring lyrics such as: “We go together like Keats and Yeats/ Bowls and plates/ Days and dates.” If people still made mix CDs, that tune would get a lot of burn this coming Valentine’s Day. But for my money the most jubilant moment comes next, with a generational anthem seemingly plucked from a different generation.
“Stranger” is a hip-swinging folk-rocker of the highest pedigree, uniting the influences that have followed Koenig and Haim their whole careers to become the Paul Simon x Fleetwood Mac classic that never was. While unruly horns blare and pedal steel playfully wriggles across the groove, Koenig revels in a night at home with Rashida and her sister Kidada, the cold outside fended off by a shrieking tea kettle and a woozy family dance party. “The sound of you and your sister,” he sings. “I couldn’t face these days alone/ You got the right light, candles burning/ We don’t need the moon anymore.” He sounds full of gratitude, like he’s found a port in the shitstorm that is planet Earth.
Father Of The Bride skillfully distills this chilled-out personal existence and humanity’s looming crises into a unified whole. Somehow it manages to be both a casual joyride and a multi-layered dissertation on the world’s ills. And although I don’t claim to have fully wrapped my head around an album that contains an encyclopedia volume’s worth of references to history, geography, and media, it seems to me that Koenig is looking to his own happiness as proof that things can get better instead of worse. In the second half of the “Stranger” chorus, he flashes back to a time when the mother of his child was just a lady on his TV screen, when this life he’s living wasn’t even a flicker in his imagination. Somehow it’s come to pass, so who knows what other bonds might be forged, what fellowship might be enjoyed? Or as Koenig and his cohort sing it, “I remember life as a stranger/ But things change.”
Father Of The Bride is out 5/3 on Spring Snow/Columbia — which, as you may have heard, is a subdivision of SONY MUSIC.