A Bitter Kind of Happiness: Vampire Weekend's New Album, Track by Track
Listening to Vampire Weekend's new album feels like taking a long, deep breath in the middle of Times Square.
In the heart of Times Square in midtown Manhattan, if you stand on top of a particular grate, you can hear a humming sound.
If you listen closely, it sounds like an Om, the ancient mantra used in meditation. That humming is actually an art piece, first installed by an artist named Max Neuhaus in the 1970s, created to see if anyone in Times Square would notice it.
In a way, that peaceful, persistent hum—in the midst of the violent brilliance of the modern wasteland that is midtown Manhattan—describes Vampire Weekend's newest album, Father of the Bride. It's an album that acknowledges the frantic distortions and surreality of our 21st-century existence, and embodies them sonically with erratic blends of instruments and shuffled rhythms, but also offers moments of almost surreal peacefulness and stillness.
Those moments wear many guises on the album. They're prevalent on its first track, "Hold You Now," which juxtaposes soft acoustic warbling with almost reverent, harmony-laden choruses, sung with the uncontained, innocent wildness of a children's choir. Danielle Haim's caramel-smooth vocals add a nice feeling of down-home country comfort to the song, but no track on this album remains within one genre for long. "This ain't the end of nothing much, it's just another round," Haim sings before the chorus swoops back in and lifts the whole thing into another place. It's a pure, kindhearted introduction to a complex treatise on the state of politics, love, and civilization at large.
"Hold You Now" moves to the more exuberant "Harmony Hall," then onto "Bambina," one of the moments where Vampire Weekend's genre-blending formula grows too chaotic for its own good. It alternates between angelic, reverential verses and frenetic, bouncy outbursts, creating a feeling of vertigo that feels as disorienting as a stroll through Times Square on a hot day. But maybe that's its purpose—to disorient the listener enough so that moments of peace and beauty feel extra vital amidst the neon and the noise.
The next few tracks, "This Life," "Big Blue," and "How Long?" continue to play with contrasts, balancing existential dread with detached, Zen-sounding observations. In traditional Vampire Weekend fashion, "This Life" touches on various cultural influences from around the world—it might even be referencing Buddhism's First Noble Truth, life is suffering (I've been cheating through this life, and all its suffering, Koening sings).
In between the creation of his last album and this one, Koening's son was born, and it's hard to imagine that this didn't have some influence on Father's content. The next track, "Big Blue," sounds oddly paternal, with its sunny strumming pattern and Creedence Clearwater Revival-esque solos. That's not to say that Ezra Koening has transitioned to dad rock—but there is something paternal about the whole album, something that screams, I love my son. With its warm background vocals and vaguely tropical peals of guitar, "Big Blue" is a veritable blanket of a song. "How Long" seems to be an expression of tender anxiety for the world's future, an intermingling of nostalgia for the irreverence of the past, existential musings, and a desire to escape the world at large and hide in the safe familiarity of one's family unit, despite impending disaster outside.
Though it touches on many complex themes, Father of the Bride never dwells too long on a single topic. "Unbearably White" moves out from the domestic sphere into a self-aware examination of whiteness, a way of reflecting on the frequent criticisms of Vampire Weekend's tendency to capitalize on sounds and influences of other cultures. Instead of awkwardly apologizing, it veils its messages in obscure poetry; that doesn't excuse the band's tendency to steal and certainly doesn't excuse its members' white privilege, but luckily, the song doesn't try to do that at all. Instead, it luxuriates in its own ambiguity.
This ambiguity is one of Vampire Weekend's greatest strengths, alongside their ability to exercise restraint. Sometimes, with all the bells and chimes and shifting rhythms, you can feel the music straining at the bit, begging to burst into full-on chaos, but always there's a fall-back into a state of calm reflectiveness, an exhale just at the peak of the tension.
"Unbearably White" flows easily into "Rich Man," which sounds almost like a lullaby or a nursery rhyme, with its fairylike guitar fingerpicking and whimsical string sections. This instrumentation does a good job of framing its lyrics, which are rife with satirical critiques of the 1% billionaire class.
"Married in a Gold Rush" forges ahead in the satirical vein, moving further into politics—"something's wrong with this country," Koenig begins, before moving into a song that may or may not be poking fun at MAGA-esque nostalgia for old wealth and old glories. It's sometimes hard to know the extent to which they're being overtly satirical or pointed, and most likely, that ambiguity is intentional.
All humor falls away on "My Mistake," which serves as a beautiful centerpiece in the midst of all the catastrophes, political unrest, pointed satire, and existentialism. If anything, this is the album's heartbeat, its humming in the midst of its billboards and apocalyptic rumination. It's a mournful ballad that sounds almost like musical theatre; you can imagine Koenig singing it while slouching over a grand piano, an empty glass of whiskey in his fingertips, red roses blooming somewhere on the edge of the frame. When the horns come in, it all comes together to create a rare kind of stillness.
Vampire Weekend - My Mistake (Official Audio)www.youtube.com
But then, of course, Koenig breaks the spell with "Sympathy," which he begins by saying, "I think I take myself too serious. It's not that serious," followed by a rumba undercut by Spanish guitar that moves into an upbeat, danceable track in the vein of "Diane Young." From there comes two tracks featuring Steve Lacy; the boisterous "Sunflower" and the psychedelic, nostalgic "Flower Moon." The latter sounds a bit like something out of Imogen Heap's catalog before blooming into a tropical-sounding blur of electric guitars and hand-claps.
"2021" looks to the future, working in the electronic influences proposed in "Flower Moon" and adding some attractively simple guitar lines to the mix. Danielle Haim returns on "We Belong Together," another pure love song that veers into saccharinity at times. Then "Stranger" returns to the innocence of "Big Blue" with its bouncy drums and cheery horns. Building on the self-awareness of "Sympathy," it almost feels almost like a laugh in the face of absurdity. "I used to look for an answer. I used to knock on every door," Koenig sings. "But you got the wave on, music playing, don't need to look anymore."
That's a comforting sentiment for anyone dismayed by the apparent lack of answers and clarity in all aspects of human existence. In his earlier work, Koenig's lyrics rigorously searched, questioning time and death and youth through many lenses—but on this album, for the first time, there's a sense that maybe motion for its own sake isn't worth the fight, that moments of stillness are just as important as the race to the finish line.
Vampire Weekend - 2021 (Official Audio)www.youtube.com
On "Spring Snow," Koening's autotuned vocals align neatly with a shimmering electronic piano. It's an entirely synthetic and strangely pleasing little jewel of a song that feels like it ends too quickly.
Still, its beauty is totally overshadowed by the album's final track, which is one of its strongest. "Jerusalem, New York, Berlin" evokes Bob Dylan with its lyrical acuity. It's a mournful tribute to what could've been, to what the human race might've created if we hadn't been swallowed up by greed and "that genocidal feeling that beats in every heart," as Koenig sings.
It's a violent sentiment and a sad one. But the song itself is so beautiful that you can almost forget about its meaning; you can almost forget everything. It feels like taking a deep breath in the midst of all the noise and the lights, like stopping to stare at the waving leaves on a tree outside your window, like hearing a strange, low hum poking through the cries and sirens of a busy city.
Despite these moments of tranquility, Father of the Bride is more of a collage than a cohesive whole, and it takes a certain amount of energy to really listen to it and key into its sometimes scattered blend of emotions and sounds. It won't be for everyone, but Father of the Bride is valuable both as documentation of our historical moment and as a work of musical composition.
Existing somewhere in the middle of Californian irreverence and New Yorkers' existential panic, it's sometimes a lot to take in—but of course, those little moments of perfect beauty appear just when you feel you're losing your footing. And sometimes—in this life of teeming crowds and blaring horns and neon signs all competing for attention while the sun grows ever-hotter—that's all we can ask for.
Vampire Weekend - Jerusalem, New York, Berlin (Official Audio)www.youtube.com
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.
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