Contra Turns 10
A couple years ago, a kid stopped Ezra Koenig in the street and said, “Oh, you’re the dude who made that album.”
“Which album?” Koenig replied.
“You know which album.”
“Well, you know, maybe I’m confused but I’ve made three albums and I like them all.”
“Contra, man, come on. Get out of here.”
Koenig told me this story last year when I interviewed him for our Vampire Weekend cover story. “He said it with such confidence,” he recalled. “Like, what, am I a moron? He said it like it was so obviously our best album. And it made me happy because I don’t think that’s the consensus. It’s the middle one. The third one had more of the trappings of success, the first one was the first one…”
Contra can indeed be easy to overlook. It’s not as refined and austere as Modern Vampires Of The City, it doesn’t have the new band energy of their 2008 debut. But Vampire Weekend are one of the most consistently excellent bands of the last decade and change, and it’s pretty easy to understand how any of their albums could conceivably be somebody’s favorite. Most days, Contra is mine, too. (Plot twist: That kid was me. Just kidding.) Its perfectly tight 10 songs are pretty hard to fuck with. It contains some of the band’s most insistently brilliant bits of genius.
It would have been pretty easy for Vampire Weekend to fall on their face. When Contra came out 10 years ago this weekend, they were no longer the ascendant indie It kids. Though they were only two years removed from their debut, they had been through the hype machine cycle a dozen times over — one of them had already started a synth-pop side project, ready to jump ship if need be. Any sign of weakness would have absolutely demolished them. They would have become a curious footnote of late ’00s blog buzz, just one of many acts who suffered that fate.
But they didn’t break a sweat on Contra. They doubled down on what made their self-titled so remarkable — the spelling bee words, the eagerness to deflate themselves before anyone can do it for them — and added new wrinkles to their sound in the form of a lot of electronic and studio fuckery. Rostam Batmanglij came into his own as a producer on Contra — his choices are bolder, more confident. They pay off endlessly. The M.I.A.-sampling “Diplomat’s Son” and the digital chaos of “California English” wouldn’t have had a place on Vampire Weekend — it’s an entirely new playground for the band, one we’d get to see expand over the next couple albums. (Special shoutout to B-side “California English Pt. 2,” which proved too chaotic to put on the album itself but is truly one of the best things they’ve ever done.)
Vampire Weekend sound like they’re having the most fun on this album (save maybe for Father Of The Bride, which operates on a different plane entirely), and it shows. The band — Koenig, Batmanglij, Chris Tomson, and Chris Baio — all feed off each other in ecstatic union. They’re pushing themselves in a hundred directions at once, but the only one you hear is forward. “Cousins,” “Holiday” and “Giving Up The Gun” are all massive pop songs, toppling over with wordplay and wit. The vocalizations on this album are some of the band’s best: Koenig’s big blue coos on “White Sky,” their insistence to “ruuuuuuun.” The music is so dense that those moments of empty space really stand out, those bits where you can put down the thesaurus and just wail along.
Every Vampire Weekend album offers up too much to unpack. That’s what have made these albums so gratifying to return to over the years — new ideas pop out constantly, everything is so purposefully layered. They’re never afraid to galaxy-brain their own music. Even Contra’s position as the middle album in a trilogy seems almost intentional. A lot of the album is about occupying the middle ground — the lyrics constantly return to false conflicts, binaries, contradictions. It’s an album of comparisons, both playful and profound. It opens with the absurdist imagery of sitting on the beach in December and sipping horchata; later on, Koenig uses a hypocritical dig about fake Philly cheesesteaks and Tom’s toothpaste to ask whether failure would make you lose all your faith in the Earth. It’s all a lot to take in, and when has this band settled for anything less?
The band uses Contra to poke holes in the mythologies we build around ourselves, the identities we adopt to make sure that we feel ethically, morally, emotionally intact. Some of that is no doubt a little reactionary, a rebuke of Vampire Weekend critics who said the band was too wealthy and privileged while being wealthy and privileged in their own way themselves. But it’s also a plea to put aside those kinds of narratives, to embrace the world as one big chaotic fusion of ideas and influences. Koenig laid out his hypothesis on the lack of polar opposites in a Rolling Stone profile: “Basically, a contra is anybody you try to frame as your opposite — as not a part of your world. It’s setting up a dichotomy. You can talk about people in very nuanced, compassionate ways — or you can be like, ‘I’m liberal; that person is not. I’m for real; that person is a sellout.'” Nothing is as black or white, hot or cold, beginning or end as we want it to be.
My favorite track has always been the closer, an outlier in the Vampire Weekend catalog but one that shows if you take all the bells and whistles away that this band still hits on something emotionally satisfying and pure. It’s Koenig at his most melodramatically poetic, set against a gorgeously simple swath of textures. “You wanted good schools and friends with pools/ You’re not a contra/ You wanted rock and roll, complete control/ Well… I don’t know,” he sings on the bridge, leaving the conflict open-ended, open to resolution. “Never pick sides, never choose between two/ Well, I just wanted you.” It’s a song about a divergence that comes together, a conflict that has a middle ground if you let it.
In my same conversation with Koenig last year, he talked a lot about the Vampire Weekend songbook, the accumulation of music that they make over the years being more important than the ebb-and-flow or narrative arc of a career. Contra contributed classic songs to that catalog in abundance. The album makes it clear that Vampire Weekend were never in danger of failing — they were always in it for the long run. It might not be everyone’s favorite Vampire Weekend release, but it’s ambitious and wide-ranging enough that it very easily could be yours.