Where do you stand on Vampire Weekend? For some, they’re wise beyond their years, armed with a sunny disposition, impressive skills and a fondness for ethnomusicology. To others, they’re a Bret Easton Ellis wet dream – photogenic Ivy League snobs bedecked in affluent attire, boasting encyclopaedic knowledge of world music and the ability to regurgitate with soulless precision. As with any end of a spectrum, the truth is often somewhere in between, yet despite carving out a mostly pleasant sound and coming across as sharp, witty gents, there has always been something slightly hollow about Vampire Weekend, a mannequin sheen lacking something key.
Modern Vampires of the City is the missing piece of the puzzle. As Ezra Koenig and friends move to leave wilder days behind, it’s perhaps no surprise to find them ruminating on the passing of time. There is a sense, too, of rebirth, ‘Obvious Bicycle’ feels almost baptismal. Where previous Vampire Weekend records kicked into gear immediately, Modern Vampires of the City unfolds with patience, a wistful Koenig aided by light piano and delicate percussion as he implores us to “Listen up” and stop wasting valuable time.
Somehow, this isn’t didactic. It’s measured advice, warm even. ‘Unbelievers’ feels a little loose by comparison, bouncing along in that now-familiar way; playful and rhythmic though slight. ‘Step’ changes course, a confident waltz that skirts Beach Boys territory with a clever gloom as Koenig listlessly allows his youth to slip away, but it’s lead single ‘Diane Young’ – a dead cert for many an end of year list – that lands a more direct blow. Loaded with an acid tongue and breakneck pace, it’s a relentless triumph, the culmination of all the pop promise the band has shown in the past. Lyrically, Koenig is on fire as he considers the logic of living fast, dying young (boom, boom) and leaving a good-looking corpse.
There is darkness in play, but nothing macabre, more a physical characteristic. The artwork depicts the band’s native New York buried beneath a blanket of thick smog, the photograph taken long before any of them had ever treaded the footpaths of their cherished city. It’s an image that speaks of both band and album; a quiet power that looms large and compact all at once. This is not a maudlin record. It is not a saccharine ode to home or a cliché-ridden coming of age. It’s tight, but never claustrophobic. ‘Hannah Hunt’ is a fine example of this contained approach. Musically, the build is sublime, all atmosphere and simple lifts. Koenig, given all the room a vocalist could ever wish for, is admirably up to the task, his delivery is the very definition of pitch perfect. In a song all about restraint and release, it’s that final vocal run that puts things over the top, the result arguably the most impressive Vampire Weekend song to date.
Occasionally, the boys can’t help it and thus veer into Wes Anderson soundtrack mode. ‘Finger Back’ and ‘Worship You’ are fun but feel parachuted in to satisfy the ‘twee’ quota. Neither effort proves disruptive (credit where it’s due, Koenig’s scattershot take on the latter is damned impressive) but they stick out as unsure glances over the shoulder. As the final grains of sand fall, Modern Vampires of the City bows out ambiguously. The ghostly ‘Young Lion’ is brief but telling, Koenig sounding resigned but sated in the knowledge that while time will eventually beat us all, there’s always the opportunity for a victory or two of our own along the way.