I don’t want to say music critics will never again disagree about any band as pointlessly as we disagreed about Vampire Weekend in 2008—after all, I’d said that same thing about the Strokes in 2006 and while I don’t mind being wrong repeatedly I do try to at least be wrong about different things. When it comes to public dustups over critical lightning rods, history repeats itself: first as farce, then again as farce, then one more damn farce after another. Farces all the way down.
So it’s fitting that Rob Harvilla’s terrific overview of the band’s career arc for the Ringer last week essentially doubled as an oral history of music critics remembering where they were when their promo copy of Vampire Weekend came in the mail in 2008. Upon hearing VW’s appropriated South African groove, everyone became an Afropop scholar and critic of neocolonialism, because if there’s one thing white collegiates love it’s finding someone whiter and collegiater to blame for—um, well, that part’s never quite clear. Yes, Ezra Koenig was Jewish and Rostam Batmanglij was Iranian-American, but they wore polo shirts or something and went to Columbia. They also sang about their even wealthier peers, and griping about that last bit always made as little sense to me as complaining that Edith Wharton didn’t write about coal miners. The rich aren’t like you and me, after all, and one advantage of going to expensive schools is you get to keep an eye on the fuckers.
Yet what’s interesting about Vampire Weekend’s fourth album, Father of the Bride, is how irrelevant that backstory is. Sure, the title of “Unbearably White” is Koenig trolling skeptics by leading with his chin, just like when he opened an album by rhyming “horchata” and “balaclava.” And “Rich Man” plays off the old country trope “one rich man in ten has a satisfied mind” (while sampling Sierra Leone’s sublime S.E. Rogie) with a giddy “And I’m the one” that recalls Lou Reed whooping, “There are problems in these times/But, ooh, none of them are mine.” But honestly, if I didn’t have old axes to grind and new jokes to tell I probably wouldn’t have even have brought the past up.
The more significant point of comparison is with Vampire Weekend’s 2013 album, Modern Vampires of the City, one of the few albums about turning 30 that anyone who’s already turned 40 could learn something from. As Koenig tangled with Yahweh, surveyed distant New York history, and addressed similar weighty themes, you could almost miss that one of the deepest cuts was the silliest. “Diane Young” was a meditation on mortality disguised as a tossed-off retro rockabilly hiccup that put nostalgia in its place with the witheringly simple “I love the past ’cause I hate suspense.”
Modern Vampires was a series of discrete, carefully constructed chamber pop set pieces, and it felt monumental as a result. Father of the Bride, in contrast, is a sprawling collection of 18 snippets, the kind of songs that feel even shorter than they are. Batmanglij has left the band, though he helps on two tracks, and returning producer Ariel Rechtshaid is joined by ringers like Steve Lacy of the adventurous R&B/rap group the Internet. The guitars take on a jazzy indirection that reportedly expands into full-on jam band noodling live. David Fricke called it the band’s Abbey Road but it’s more their White Album, though its disjointedness feels like a deliberate strategy rather than a byproduct of failed collaboration.
There’s a tension between ease and control throughout Father of the Bride. It’s a celebration of Koenig’s facility, displaying the effortlessness of his spry tunes and allusive couplets, but its genteel folksiness is also mechanically precise, like a digital rendering of an open-air landscape. The lead track, “Hold You Now” (the first of three songs in which Danielle Haim appears as a wise foil to Koenig’s callow wayfarer), interrupts its finger-plucked offhandedness with a simulated flub and a tinkered-with choir, and subsequent tracks similarly pull back the curtain whenever the mood becomes too naturalistic.
Where in the past Koenig’s lyrics suggested the impermanent relationships of early adulthood, these lyrics hint at a more adult arc, voicing the thoughts of a guy who’s come to acknowledge that once you care about others your own mortality is the least of your worries. Without getting too autobiographical, that makes sense: Koenig is now 35 and has a son with Rashida Jones. He’s looking ahead, but not too far: “2021” sounds like a sci-fi title till you do the math and realize it’s only two years away.
And doom lurks around the edge of nearly every chorus here. “How long till we sink till the bottom of the sea?” Koenig wonders sing-songily over a fingersnap and chorus of distant “la la la”s, while elsewhere he predicts “There’s an avalanche coming.” He ducks behind aphorisms such as “I know death probably hasn’t happened yet” like a Stephen Malkmus whose pose is sincerity rather than slack, but he can also be direct, as when he sings sweetly on what’s already the most widely quoted lyric here: “Things have never been stranger/Things are gonna stay strange.”
Things have always been stranger in the psychogeography of Vampire Weekend than Koenig’s demeanor has let on. While Paul Simon was the go-to comparison in the early days, that just showed what a skimpy record collection so many ’80s babies’ parents had. In terms of sensibility (if not sound), Vampire Weekend reminded me also of Talking Heads, uncool posturing a way of uncovering topics and moods flashier rockers had left uncovered as international music styles acknowledge the world beyond the band’s limited perspectives. (Just think what Hipster Runoff would’ve made of David Byrne’s crew of RISD carpetbaggers back in the day).
But if Byrne exaggerated his anxiety and alienation, Koenig exaggerated his comfort in his own skin, and even still, he sounds preternaturally thoughtful and sane. That’s why he can close the album with “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” which confronts “a wicked world” and addresses “That genocide of feeling/That beats in every heart” with a light enough touch to avoid inducing eye rolls. “There’s no use in being clever,” Koenig sings on “We Belong Together,” but that doesn’t stop him from indulging his cleverness. In fact, Father of the Bride is an instruction manual for how to continue to treasure the wit and craft that have helped you survive and love in the past, yet seem hopelessly insufficient tools for addressing the looming apocalypse on the horizon. I for one could sure as hell use one.