In the end this album didn’t quite do enough. There was a moment when I thought “Modern Vampires of the City” might be really brilliant. But it has ended up just being very good. I’m sure the band are going to be devastated when* they read that. It boils down to a case of a slightly weaker second side.
I’ve been wondering if this might be down to the fact that my listening habits centre around my commute, and as much as I love that journey it isn’t always conducive to really giving albums a clear run. There’s too many changes involved, with inevitable potential to break concentration (passenger announcements about train delays being all-too-frequent hazards), and sometimes I’m in such a rush (and I end up in such a squeeze) that there isn’t room or time to get headphones in and music on until later in the journey.
What this means is that I often end up only hearing the first third or half of an album for a while, and then being forgetful or too ill-disciplined to start again in the right place. Consequently, the first three tracks of “Modern Vampires…” managed several runs before I decided to damn the man and start playing it on whichever track I liked. This meant my listening was a bit fragmentary but, having become acquainted with side two, I managed some solid, in-order, from-beginning-to-end listening this weekend (you’ll hear more about that amazing trip in due course, and most likely at some length…). Which brings us to what it’s like…
There’s a couple of songs on here that are unmistakably Vampire Weekend – and not just in the sense that Ezra Koenig’s voice is instantly recognisable. “Finger Back” and “Worship You” are that kind of breathless, dextrous, un-mimic-able, breakneck pop that we know and have loved before. It might be that fact that makes them seem less interesting – not that they lack for quality, but they don’t grab the attention, imagination and emotions like other tracks on this album. It might also be that, solid and well-executed as they are, they’re just not as good as some of the outstanding moments on this record. And finally, it might be that, with “Everlasting Arms” they form a trio tracklisted at 7, 8 and 9 that, had they been dispersed amongst the highlights, might not have reduced the wattage so obviously.
I won’t dwell on them any further. They’re not the songs that I want to come back to time and again (and “Finger Back” features one of two irritating spoken-word interventions that I think do nothing for the album), and they’re not what you want to know about, trust me. What you want to know about are the songs that I can’t put away.
Let’s start with “Hudson”. The mournful, sepulchral monument to the river, the bay and, in part, the man who gave his name, English explorer Henry Hudson, is the moment on this record that genuinely evokes something linked to the horrors of its title. The shivering electronic drums invoke the unimaginable movements of a toying Nosferatu and the gloomy strings interweave with a bass kin to something from Radiohead’s most experimental moments and synthesiser chords that hover just in the background like ghosts.
Then there’s “Unbelievers”, channelling Arcade Fire in the thumping piano that drives the chorus. It’s Ezra Koenig’s catchiest vocal of the album, perhaps his straightest delivery as well. All of his energy is focused on delivering a singalongamusing about eternal damnation that you won’t be able to shake – soon enough, you’ll be joyfully belting out these lines too !
“We know the fire awaits Unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl, you know and I will die Unbelievers
Bound to the tracks of the train.
I’m not excited, but should i be ?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me ?”
And what about “Hannah Hunt” ? A beautifully simple piano melody that, along with some fretless bass and organ, lullabies us for the first 2:40 before the band take it to the bridge in an almost country-ish manner. So lush, so lovely. Ezra Koenig then pins you to the ground with an out-of-nowhere lung-busting explosion of voice that is so believably raw, so nakedly emotional that you are still reeling as the song gently closes.
Best of all for me are two very different tracks – album opener “Obvious Bicycle” and lead single “Diane Young”. The former features the most wonderfully written backing vocals that I have heard outside a Rufus Wainwright record for years: “listen” implores Ezra Koenig as the singers wrap undulating repeating waves around him. It’s such a cleanly arranged track – with every nuanced part given the room to add to the feeling of pre-dawn sadness – the narrator has nothing hopeful to offer to his audience, except for them to leave, to give this up, whatever this is, and go, to whatever other place in which a better chance might exist. Ramshackle drums sound like ticket-punches and ticking clocks, “the LED still flickers in your eyes”, the underlining piano, the backing vocals, the backing vocals, the backing vocals…
Finally, then, a word about “Diane Young”, an entirely new thing for Vampire Weekend, at least as far as I know. Ezra Koenig reinventing himself as Elvis delivering a salivatingly sex-saturated vocal, fronting a blistering, totally danceable belter of a single that welds together elements of Dick Dale, Fatboy Slim, and Outkast, at the least. I don’t know how many times he repeats “baby” but it isn’t even close to enough. I want more. This song makes me want to roar.
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