Modern Vampires of the City is a treasure of a pop album. It’s one of the most thoughtful, tuneful, and moving records released thus far in this century. It came out in May and I still can’t stop listening to it. Since we are now in the thick of list-making season, and every music site on the net is laying out its top ten songs and albums of 2013, I’d like to take a moment to retroactively review what I am convinced is the finest record of the year. With this album, Vampire Weekend have become one of the most important American bands of their generation, and I will consider my time well spent if I can bring it to the attention of just a few more people.
Vampire Weekend’s Graceland-inspired fusion of American pop and African rhythms (what they called Upper West Side Soweto) is no longer to be heard here. They retain all the personality of the spirited, Ivy League-educated band who opened their debut with a song called “Mansard Roof” that actually was about a Mansard roof; but since they are a band who always seem to sound like themselves, no matter what they do, it’s easy to overlook just how extensively they have transformed themselves as musicians in the last five years. Modern Vampires of the City frequently gives the impression of classical chamber music underscored with hip-hop beats – except that this description makes it sound a lot more radical than it actually feels, because the band have developed the ability (as all great bands do) to make everything they put on record sound natural. This is baroque, sophisticated pop music, complete with orchestral string sections and chiming pianos, that nonetheless sounds superbly modern and unpretentious (largely thanks to the energised and complex percussion lines that retain the clearest traces of the band’s Afropop beginnings).
Vampire Weekend are quintessential New York City: intelligent yet down-to-earth, cosmopolitan yet very discerning, their music joyous yet tempered with melancholy. Frontman and songwriter Ezra Koenig may no longer take his instrumental cues from Graceland, but he is still Paul Simon’s heir. What is especially wonderful is how the optimism and compassion of his earliest songs has matured into the genuine wisdom and humanity that permeate Modern Vampires of the City. This album is, above all, a remarkably humane and welcoming record, a feel-good album in the best sense of the term. Koenig embraces human beings confronted by mortality, insecurity, and the challenges of spirituality. Listen to how he delivers the soaring and yet frenetic chorus of “Worship You” (the song on which he sings faster than any singer you’ve ever heard who wasn’t actually trying to rap). “We worshipped you, your red right hand! Won’t we see you once again? In foreign soil, in foreign land, who will guide us through the end?”. Koenig addresses God with the same sincerity, tenderness, and passion with which he addresses other human beings. Everybody is welcome on Modern Vampires of the City. Every character feels real. Everyone who listens to “Hannah Hunt” can feel like they know the title character as well as they know Koenig himself, and that is very well indeed.
Every song offers something to surprise you, and often to take your breath away. It takes some courage to open an album with a song as understated as “Obvious Bicycle,” but by the time it reaches that moment about sleeping on the floor of the high school gym, it’s clear that the band have everything it takes to draw the listener in. “Diane Young” sounds more chaotic than most punk rock, but it is also laced with lines like “You got the luck of a Kennedy” and “You know I love the past ‘cause I hate suspense”. “Don’t Lie” is majestic, inviting old flames back home for the night even as it reminds you that “there’s a headstone right in front of you”. When Koenig screams that “If I can’t trust you then damnit, Hannah!” at the peak of the tranquil then suddenly urgent “Hannah Hunt,” he sounds like he’s fighting for his life. And above it all towers the glorious, inexhaustible “Step,” one of the best songs of the year, which needs to be heard to be understood. Modern Vampires of the City is life-affirming and beautiful. It is the kind of album that can remind you why you love pop music.