If you’ve done something right the first time, where is the need to recreate it? Looking back on what has worked so well for Vampire Weekend in the past—wistful Afro-pop, earthy Caribbean instrumentation and lyrics about punctuation—it becomes clear that recreating past glories simply wasn’t an option for the band’s third album, Modern Vampires Of The City. In a jarringly beautiful manner, Vampire Weekend has grown. Working with production svengali Ariel Rechtshaid (Charli XCX, Usher), the group has employed every tool at its disposal: sampling, the subtle wah-wah of pitch-shifting, Rostam Batmanglij’s expressive ingenuity on the keys and an overarching melancholia. Vampires Of The Modern City stands to become the group’s Paul’s Boutique, raising the bar from being a fun but safe band to breaking ground ahead of their peers. Like the skyscrapers on the album’s cover, a photo of the smoggiest day in New York City’s history, hope pokes out through a cloud of angst.
And how do they do it? By slowing down. Many tracks here, like opener “Obvious Bicycle,” which samples reggae maestro Ras Michael, are “the slow tracks.” At first listen, “Step,” has more than just a tinge of the insufferable ’90s prom sob-fest “Graduation (Friends Forever),” but, thankfully, the band doesn’t show even a hint of the schmaltzy feel-good attitude of Vitamin C. They focus not on a falsely satisfying group hug, but instead on an internal nostalgia: the confusion of coming of age into a era of internet-explosion music nerdom. Released earlier this year as a double A-side with “Step,” “Diane Young” and “Worship You” are Vampire Weekend at its most fun. Harried, peppy and reminiscent of the early single that launched the band’s career, “A-Punk,” both songs still give the album a swift burst of energy.
Some things don’t change—Ezra Keonig still delivers metaphor-laden non sequiturs in a naturally calculated cadence, occasionally breaking into a stirring falsetto as Batmanglij steers the melody unpredictably—nor should they. This is still a Vampire Weekend album and to expect something aside from outre Americana would be foolish. The deceptively simplistic “Hannah Hunt,” a minimalist ballad of a couple on the road, is a perfect storm of Keonig’s taste for escapism both then—it could be a follow-up to Contra‘s “Run”—and now.
Modern Vampires Of The City is big. Not big in stature or structure, but the band has finally mastered the art of the crescendo—taking the listener to the brink and holding them there, wobbling, just long enough to lose their footing before tumbling down the rabbit hole. This is most evident on single “Ya Hey,” which builds on a Handel-like choral and a spoken-word Rolling Stones nod. Sample-heavy funeral dirge “Hudson” is the stone thrown furthest from the band’s earlier work, and, therefore is one of the standout songs on an album packed with stars. The ghostly lament is thick with the weighty themes running throughout the album: the heaviness of being and the incessant tick-tocking of time. And, true to form as a beautiful breakdown, innovation is gorgeous.