Artist: Vampire Weekend
Album Title: Father of the Bride
Release Date: May 3, 2019
“We took a vow in summertime / Now we find ourselves in late December.” These words kick off “Harmony Hall,” the first single from Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride. Simple yet striking, they invoke the alarming passage of time in an apt way for a band whose work set the stage for many a music lover’s coming of age.
If you’re anything like me, each of their releases arrived at a pivotal period in your music education. Perhaps Vampire Weekend came along when you were in middle school and just starting to branch out from top 40 radio into the alternative sphere. Contra found its way into your rotation at the halfway point of your high school career, while Modern Vampires of the City became your record of the summer after freshman year of college. At all of these crucial junctures, you found your conception of music—and what it could be—dramatically and permanently altered.
And now it’s been 11 years since we first started that journey. We’re all a little older now—wiser in some ways, in others not, and still constantly learning. Same goes for Ezra Koenig and his bandmates, who returned from a six-year absence this year to announce the release of a new album. As we witness modern culture’s constant splintering-and-reorganization process, it seems as good a time as any for yet another checkpoint from the band.
But after 11 years and 3 groundbreaking records, what more can Koenig and Chrisses Baio and Tomson—now deprived of founding member and key creative force Rostam Batmanglij—really have to say? The answer, evidently, is quite a bit. Enough, at least, to fill the most audacious, ambitious curveball in the band’s catalog thus far.
Love and God through different lenses
If Vampire Weekend are the Beatles of their generation, Father of the Bride is their White Album. (Hell, the cover is even mostly white.) It’s a sprawling, idiosyncratic, dizzyingly fun work that sees the group spinning out in myriad experimental directions with the help of journeyman producer Ariel Rechtshaid. Koenig has cited country star Kacey Musgraves as a major inspiration for his songwriting this time around. As a result, Bride takes the city-bound boho-punk of the band’s previous work for an excursion through a sunny, chilled-out countryside. Softly strumming guitars, laid-back rhythms, chirping birds, and trickling streams abound.
The outwardly pleasant sound, however, is at constant odds with Koenig’s grimly self-reflective lyrics. The frontman still finds himself deep in the throes of the existential crisis that dogged him throughout most of Modern Vampires. Much of Bride sees Koenig continue to grapple with spiritual turmoil and the fallout of his romantic failures. The notable difference is that he largely eschews the opaque, preppy poetics that have become his trademark in favor of more direct, confessional lyrics.
Take, for instance, breezy single “This Life.” Atop buoyant guitar and giddy handclaps, Koenig bemoans his own amorous recklessness: “Baby, I thought pain was as natural as the rain / I just thought it didn’t rain in California…I’ve been cheating through this life and all its suffering / Oh, Christ, am I good for nothing?” Time, it turns out, has made him a more honest lyricist, and it yields some of the best songwriting of his career.
Everything old is new again
Rechtshaid and the band’s experimental leanings here don’t always work–the album’s second half, in particular, proves disappointingly uneven. But when they do work, the results can be awe-inspiring. The doleful “My Mistake” sounds like a lost Tin Pan Alley number; Sinatra himself could’ve sung it had it been written 60 years earlier. The watery awe of “Big Blue” and the cheeky, string-laden “Rich Man” could pass as McCartney cuts from c.1968. And “2021”—a devastating meditation on time built from a piece by ambient composer Haruomi Hosono—is unlike anything the group has done before.
Of course, the record isn’t a complete overhaul of the signature art-pop sound of Vampire Weekend. We still get plenty of shimmering Afrobeat guitar, ethereal choir tones, ecstatic blasts of melodramatic strings, and so on. The semi-baroque ascending keyboard notes that open “Sunflower” could easily be part of a hypothetical sequel to 2008’s “M79″—that is, before the drums and guitar kick in and turn the track into a hazy funk-soul workout. In a sense, the band are doing what they’ve always done; all that’s changed is the way in which they do it.
On major standout “Harmony Hall,” a flood of virtuosic guitar-pickin’ gives way to a thunderous, soaring chorus with a quirky piano hook that sounds weirdly similar to George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” or Counting Crows’ “Hanginaround.” It’s odd, but it works–largely because it refines what the group do well while still managing to explore uncharted territory. It easily ranks among the best songs the group has ever written. (That being said, it’s telling that the best song on the record is one the band co-wrote with Batmanglij. It seems they haven’t quite recovered from his departure just yet.)
The ballad of Ezra and Danielle
Working with serial collaborator Kanye West has clearly had an effect on Koenig’s approach to songcraft, and all over Bride, he makes stellar use of a few friends in high places. Among the illustrious supporting players on the roster are the Internet’s Steve Lacy, Chromeo’s Dave Macklovitch, Mark Ronson, Ludwig Göransson, ILoveMakonnen, and Michael “BloodPop” Tucker.
One guest star, however, has more of an effect on the record’s direction than perhaps any other. I’m referring, of course, to one Danielle Haim. Three of the album’s 18 tracks are heartfelt love-gone-wrong duets between Koenig and Haim that mark the closest Vampire Weekend may ever come to country-western balladry.
Gentle acoustic opener “Hold You Now” casts Koenig as a sad-sack ex-lover struggling to come to terms with his fizzled-out relationship with Haim’s bride-to-be. Their conversation is interrupted by a eerily distorted sample of Hans Zimmer’s jubilant score for 1998’s The Thin Red Line, mirroring the struggle to find inner and outer peace in a world that breeds calamity.
“Married in a Gold Rush” depicts the two flailing in the wake of a romance that happened all too fast. The chipper, disarmingly straightforward “We Belong Together” starts out as a cutesy list of opposing romantic complements (“black and white, day and night…real and fake…”) before gradually taking the form of an argument. It’s as if they’re trying to force a love that isn’t quite there. Haim’s unmistakable alto offers a perfect counterpoint to Koenig’s staccato yelp. Think a much hipper version of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
Bride’s sparse, piano-heavy closing track, “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” makes a profound connection between three cities with deep meaning in the Jewish tradition. Koenig sings somberly of “that genocidal feeling / That beats in every heart.”
Contemplating humankind’s destructive nature seems like a particularly dark note on which to end a record. In context, however, the lyric is more hopeful than damning. Life is fleeting and humans can be deeply cruel, yes–but there is goodness and meaning in the human experience if you’re willing to find it. And ultimately, that’s a solid summation of Koenig and Vampire Weekend’s ethos: finding the joy in a dark, meaningless world.
On Father of the Bride, their search for that joy takes Vampire Weekend to numerous places, some more palatable than others. But, taken as a whole, it’s the work of people who love music and believe in its power. And that’s a considerable part of what makes a great record.