The East Coast baroque pop super group makes their glorious return
May 9, 2019
It’s been six years since we heard from the music world’s favorite Columbia grads. On Mar. 3 that all changed. Vampire Weekend, a band once famous for a mixed aesthetic of Ivy-League prep, Ralph Lauren logos and pastel oxfords, released their much-anticipated fourth album on Friday dubbed “Father of the Bride.”
While remaining true to form in many ways, the band seems to have traded in their boat shoes for birkies with the release of their most recent and most prolific album.
They had the formula down, though. Sprinkle some jangly, highlife-inspired guitar work over the bounce and sway of djembes, throw in some baroque backing and top it off with some deeply digital production work from band member Rostam Batmanglij and you’ve got yourself a hit.
So why the change?
To answer that question, we need to go back to 2006. This was the year when the four members of the group first met and graduated from Columbia University. The original lineup placed frontman Ezra Koenig on guitar, Chris Baio on bass, Chris Tomson on drums and Rostam Batmanglij filling in anywhere between—guitar, keyboards, drums, you name it.
In its earliest stages, the band was only a small rap project between Koenig and Tomson onto which Baio and Batmanglij later attached themselves. While their first work carried with it a true musical integrity, it was more or less just a nutty experiment for them. As Koenig remarked to The Feed, “It’s so just fundamentally absurd with song names like Oxford Comma. With the fact that the first album had any success at all, it was like wait, what?”
Nevertheless, despite all reasonable expectation, their “college preppy dress-up,” as Koenig later described the group, hit the ground running and attracted a massive following. Their youthful and often chaotic musical style propelled them through three album releases.
What started as an inane romp in braided belts and Brooks Brothers morphed into deeply poetic and morose music. But six years have passed and there’s been an immense shift in who and what Vampire Weekend is.
The record begins with Koenig’s familiar voice crooning over the unobtrusive sounds of fingerpicked chords on the track “Hold You Now.” The song follows the dramatic ups and downs of a fateful wedding ceremony—a theme oft-repeated through the entirety of the album’s 18 tracks.
The stripped-down verses are contrasted starkly by the anthemic, vocal fanfare of the choruses. In these eight bars, the song “God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi,” famously used in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” is sampled and paired only with a tempo-establishing bass drum.
Koenig noted to Rolling Stone recently that the song touches on “the ties that bind, the relationships between communities, between humans and God, between people and the land they live on,” not simply the tragic story of a tumultuous wedding night.
If distilled to its important components, the song seems to be about humans’ mistreatment of the Earth and the very real chance of losing it if ignored. The message seems important both in its substance and placement on the tracklist given the image of the globe on the album’s cover.
The next track, “Harmony Hall,” was released as a single for the album on Jan. 24. Mirroring the reserved instrumentation as that heard in the previous song, moods hardly change from track one to two. Similarly, the marital theme carries through with the opening lines “We took a vow in summertime / Now we find ourselves in late december.”
The message here seems less global however. Instead, it speaks to the current tumult of the political climate in the United States. Vampire Weekend, proud supporters of Bernie Sanders, summarize the national mood by saying, “Anger wants a voice, voices wanna sing / Singers harmonize ’til they can’t hear anything / I thought that I was free from all that questionin’ / But every time a problem ends, another one begins.”
It’s short, it’s sweet, but these four lines are a direct critique of what they see as the source of the relentless clashing of the left and right in our current political climate. Odd as it may be given their occupation, these musicians seem to disavow the harmony of voices whose unity only serve to separate them from others.
The mellow, joyous soulfulness of “Harmony Hall” swells into a fast-paced whirlwind of joy on “Bambina”—a song that’s only flaw is its length. It harkens back to the spritely bangers like “A-Punk” “Holiday” which enraptured the band’s earliest followers. Energetic and foot-tap inducing, the song would be benefitted by an extra minute or two of play.
Nevertheless, the song stays true to the theme of ecological consideration as one line states, “No time to discuss it / Can’t speak when the waves / Reach our house upon the dunes.” Further, it seems reasonable that the discouraging brevity of the album’s catchiest song speaks directly to the short frame of time the human race has to bring our world back from utter collapse.
After the heart-swelling “Contra” album era pastiche of “Bambina,” the album continues with previously released singles “This Life” and “Big Blue.” The latter carries on the theme of dualism of both Earth and the celestial as first posited in the opening track. Where the first track simply broaching these themes and concepts, “Big Blue” speaks more to a spiritual connection between the narrator and subject.
Throughout the entirety of the album, there’s plainly a lot to unpack. However, Koenig seems to ask his audience to take a pause from overthinking the work in some capacity at the start of the eleventh track, “Sympathy.”
Before any note rings out Koenig remarks, “I think I take myself too serious / It’s not that serious.” Simple and succinct, this unsung phrase snaps any over-analyzing fans out of their exegetical listening. But beyond just a message to the listener, it seems like this line is more in reference to the existential funk which hung over him during the production of the previous album—it’s equal parts for himself and his audience.
“Father of the Bride” is much more than the Vampire Weekend work of old. It’s clean, organized, hopeful and consequential. Gone are the days of sand and silliness. Down a member and now saturated with the real-world knowledge they’ve gleaned in their musical sabbatical, the counts of Columbia and the Nosferatus of New England have reinvented themselves with a levelheaded maturity that’s deserving of a close, considered listen.
Contact Noah Sonnenburg at firstname.lastname@example.org or call