All Surface No Feeling // Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City Review

Remember when Vampire Weekend were just some posh English graduates from Columbia who seemed to owe their entire existence to Paul Simon and Talking Heads? Remember all they gave a fuck about was an oxford comma? Yeah, they’ve come some way since then. First, on 2010’s Contra, by ditching some of the world music vibe for 80s pop and some of the boundless energy for controlled joy; and now, with Modern Vampires of the City, they seem to have cut all ties to their youthful endeavours. Except the font. The Futura stays and all is good with the world.

Well, maybe not actually. Not for Ezra Koenig and co. who seem to be having a spot of trouble dealing with leaving their 20s. The tone of their latest release is markedly more down tempo and reserved, almost hymn-like at times(and that’s not just because of all the Old Testament locales like Babylon and Zion namedropped throughout), and the energy of old seems to have been focused into touching up their already-impeccable compositional skills. The songs on Modern Vampire are elegant, refined and, although structurally sorta weird at times, universally a pleasant listen. They’re different, and they’re certainly a lot less fun, but you can’t argue that Vampire Weekend know how to age gracefully.

Aging seems to be the dominant theme across the album, and mostly it’s them talking about how they’re not old just yet, but it’s also dotted with uncertainty at the future and just what they’re mean to do with it. It’s perhaps fitting then that the whole album has a strangely eerie, reverb-heavy atmosphere that’s at once somehow nostalgic and timeless. That timelessness is then mixed with some hip-hop influences, most prominently on Step, which is a weird, yet strangely effective, combination.

But it’s not like they’ve become all bitter and grumpy or anything; Koenig’s lyrics are still whip-smart and filled with the kind of snappy lines you almost wish you could say in real life – “Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife”(ZING!) – and songs like Diane Young are still bursting with energy. The difference is that these are more controlled explosions. Worship You, which contains some unbelievably fast work by Koenig amidst a folky kinda beat that’s almost too fast to keep up with, is probably the only other track where they really cut loose like something from one of their older albums, which I miss.

That’s not to say everything else is dull, it’s just not quite as lively as old. It’s all just one gear lower than you might be used to, although it’s still filled with typically Vampire Weekend touches –the emphatic drumming, the idiosyncratic vocals, the abrupt tempo shifts. I mean, I’m calling this mid-tempo but that’s really only by their rapid-fire standards. Even a song like Everlasting Arms, one of the slower tracks and also evidently ripped straight from Paul Simon’s ear, still clips along at a pretty brisk pace.

Overall, they seem to have developed more in the vein of Contra’s slow-tempo closer I Think Ur A Contra; which is fair enough since the more stately, measured sound of that quickly made it one of my favourites among their whole canon. The problem is they seem to have ditched some of the warmth and emotion along with the energy. Modern Vampires feels strangely hollow and artificial, devoid of feeling in spite of their faultless craftsmanship. It’s a fault I didn’t even notice until I listened to their earlier stuff afterwards. There was just something missing, some kind of soul or sincerity that seems to have been ditched for…I don’t know really. I’m not sure what’s meant to replace it, and all I can think of is the revamped sound-scape that’s at the heart of the problem, but whatever it is isn’t there.  Even the lyrics, though they’re still great and all, just seem kinda cold and empty. It’s all just a bit flat by comparison.

They’ve called Modern Vampires their darkest release yet, but seem to have mistaken that for a strange, sad coldness like that on Hannah Hunt. This approach certainly has its moments, Step and Hannah for example, but it’s the black sheep of the album that really sticks out for me. Hudson, tucked away right at the end of the album, is what really interested me. Here they make good on their promise for dark with an incredibly strange, almost Portishead sounding track that is about as far removed as you can possibly get from their roots. It’s sinister, gothic, brooding and, seriously, I’m not sure I’ve heard anything quite like it. It mixes the gothic with this whole strange dark trip-hop sound that has more in common with a jazz-rap group like BAD BAD NOT GOOD or something.

This might be a weird thing to mention, but it’s also the only track that I feel connects to the album artwork.  Previous albums seemed to have something about them that was captured perfectly by the party scene of their debut or the polo-wearing 80s Polaroid of Contra; but here Hudson is the only one that seems in touch with the beautiful, yet eerie and slightly haunting photo that adorns Modern Vampires. I mean, that’s a photo of New York’s smoggiest day ever. People died from it. That’s kind of a dark and ominous photo and doesn’t really gel with Koenig complaining that you ‘Step to his girl’.

Basically, it is seriously intriguing and I wish there was more of it. I’m not sure what a whole album of this would be like, though I sense it could be amazing and something of a game-changer, but even a few more songs like it that really embraced their promise for the dark more deeply would have been greatly appreciated.

If it sounds like I’m being harsh on Vampire Weekend then that’s only because I love them and know they’re totally amazing. Therefore I expect totally amazing. This is just short of totally amazing, and on a couple of tracks it absolutely hits the high expectations, but by no means is it at all a bad album. It’s not even worthy of the stock ‘It’s only poor by their high standards’ shtick – it’s just a bit short of what came before. What’s more important is that it’s different, it’s bold and its managed to carve out its own niche within Vampire Weekend’s works that I know I’ll return to.


Listen to: Step, Diane Young, Hudson


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