Vampire Weekend’s ‘Father of the Bride’ Is an Earnest Exploration of Relationships, Politics, and Religion
When Vampire Weekend first rose to prominence with their 2008 self-titled debut, they were very much a divisive act — unabashedly preppy, and flaunting their admiration for the likes of Paul Simon, yet falling quite neatly into an indie mold. Worlds collided, hipsters jeered, and critics shrugged, but the band’s music spoke for itself, and before you knew it, they had become almost a standard of normalcy, one appealing to a particular set of demographics whose paths crossed but hadn’t normally exactly met. Over a decade later, the group has an impressive collection of work behind them, and is returning after an uncharacteristically long six-year hiatus. Making due on their time, they’ve offered a new album “Father of the Bride” that nearly doubles the running time of their previous efforts, and you can rest assured that it isn’t a tawdry, arbitrary patching together of songs. A thoroughly cohesive record, it captures a band at a different time. Founding member Rostam Batmanglij is no longer a member, but still a contributor on several tracks. The album also finds singer Ezra Koenig exploring fresh sounds by collaborating with the Internet’s Steve Lacy, and dueting with Danielle Haim for several songs that delve boldly into country stylings, an entirely new direction for the band. Above all, it’s a lyrically insightful work that zeroes in on a very specific contemporary mentality with precision.
The predominant theme of the album deals with the time in one’s life when relationships have run a fair course, and the institution of marriage is an implicit, disquieting, seemingly premature expectation that one has to grapple with. Opener “Hold You Now,” the first of Koenig’s duets with Danielle Haim, contains the rather shameless assertion “Promises of future glory don’t make a case for me.” As the song develops, the dialogue reveals itself to be between a bride on her wedding day and a previous flame. The chorus bursts into a snippet of “God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi,” a Melanesian choral song with lines that translate to the likes of “God, take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” One one hand, the flowery words and fittingly exalted choral stylings seem to mock marriage with a bona fide skeptic’s enlightenment. Simultaneously, however, they express a momentary indulgence in amorous idealism, which functions in context to convey an overall ambivalence and uncertainty about the situation at large. The emotionally unresolved goodbye takes a soft focus on “Unbearably White” with Koenig reasoning, “Baby, I love you / But that’s not enough,” and a more explicit form on “Bambina,” a percussive number that finds the singer stepping out of his usual register, tapping into the more flamboyant, free-wheeling stylings of such cuts as “White Skies” from 2010’s “Contra,” along with Auto-Tune flourishes that were met with bewilderment then, but now scarcely bat an eye. Taking on a more decisive posturing, he here bids, “For now, ciao ciao, Bambina.”
All this sidelong fretting and quivering comes amid the backdrop of the current socio political landscape, the sheer absurdity of which can magnify otherwise manageable personal issues to formidable proportions. On “Harmony Hall,” a sprightly number, tempered with tasteful discretion, Koenig reflects, “Anger wants a voice, voices wanna sing / Singers harmonize ’til they can’t hear anything,” evoking the phenomenon of disaffected political classes mobilized into unthinking collective fits of rage. It’s an occurrence simultaneously taken root in so many geographical pockets as to have many transfixed in disbelief, as Koenig articulates, singing “Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified.” The observations get more direct on “Married in a Gold Rush,” the most overtly country number, with prickly banjo plucking, and a playful back-and-forth between Koenig and Haim. He charges, “Something’s happening in the country / And the government’s to blame,” going on to observe, “We got married in a gold rush / And the rush has never felt the same.” It’s the heated, impulsive frenzy of youth, exacerbated by circumstances that throw everything into question.
Koenig has spoken of how the six-year gap between the last albums seemed shorter to him than the three-years between the previous two. With every passing year a smaller fraction of the amount of time we can compare it with, it’s only natural that time passes faster as we grow older, and this conundrum makes itself well into the album. You can sense the onerous ticking of time in “Harmony Hall,” with observations like “We took a vow in summertime / Now we find ourselves in late December.” “Flower Room” begins with a fanciful vocal arrangement between Steve Lacy and Koenig that wouldn’t be out of place on the most unhindered ‘70s records, then bursts into a festive affair with a breakbeat and strategic horn blasts, all seemingly issuing from Koenig’s admission, “It was the right place, wrong time.” This leads to pondering about the future, which surfaces on “2021,” an interlude type of track that rings like a measured meditation on a thought, with questions like “2021, will you think about me?” With such seeds of doubt planted, even the most idealistic situations fall into scrutiny, and it’s in this context that much of the album’s romantic neuroses presumably take root.
At some points, this inspires a dark strain of nihilism, as in “How Long?” when Koenig fusses, “What’s the point of getting clean? / You’ll wear the same old dirty jeans,” over twee, dainty music that challenges the gravity of sentiment. It gets drearier yet, and approaches a level of gothic brooding that couldn’t be less expected of Vampire Weekend on “My Mistake,” a song strikingly darker in tone, with none of the band’s usual sonic frivolity. The barren arrangement of plaintive, expressive piano and vocals is all the more compelling in a set of otherwise musically buoyant songs, and there’s an elusive timelessness to it. Notably, Koenig’s recent enthusiasm for country even seeps in here in little subtle manners of pronunciation, keeping up the mix of emotions and aesthetics that runs through the album. “Sunflower,” another cut featuring Lacy is a decidedly brighter affair, but the most abysmal lyrically, with Koenig declaring, “No power can compel me / Back into the daylight / Let that evil wait.” On other tracks, the prevailing angst inspires a more lighthearted musing, for instance the quaint, mellow “Rich Man,” on which Koenig reflects on the chances of being one among many to end up in a circumstance. In a shining example of his narrative songcraft, the verses progress from mentions of being one in ten to one in a billion, giving a sense of panning out to encounter a steadily more awe-inspiring and bewildering sight.
Other songs hint at a silver lining in it all. In “Stranger,” Koenig sings, “things have never been stranger… but things change,” at which point the band erupts into a festive Motown-style arrangement, replete with impassioned hoots and hollers. On “Unbearably White,” he confesses, “what kept us together, darling / Is what kept us alive,” in an especially tender voice, which ultimately retracts to the shrugging refrain of “Call it a day / Call it a night.” On “Sympathy,” a more boisterous, upbeat number, with some of the groove that the band made their staple in songs like “Cousins,” he winsomely suggests, “What I’m to you, you are to me / Let’s go.”
Religion has been a palpable them for Vampire Weekend since 2013’s “Modern Vampires of the City,” which featured songs like “Ya Hey,” which referenced the Hebrew “Yahweh,” and abounded with contemplative spiritual reflections. On the latest record, Koenig alludes to Anti Semitic stereotypes and the baggage that comes along with them, as in the lines from “Harmony Hall,” “Beneath these velvet gloves I hide / The shameful, crooked hands of a moneylender / ‘Cause I still remember.” He hints at the relative absurdity of religious classifications, in the light of historic divisions, on “Sympathy,” commenting, “Judeo-Christianity, I’d never heard the words / Enemies for centuries, until there was a third.” The most overt excursion into such subject matter, of course, comes in the final track, “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” which attempts to draw a parallel between disillusionment in a romantic relationship and the bleak state of affairs in the contested “holy land.” It’s a sentimental closer, and a mature afterthought, leaving the listener with a glimmer of some elusive universal harmony in its titular refrain.
“Father of the Bride,” might strike as less immediately punchy than most of the band’s previous work. This is fitting, as it’s very much an expression of a more reflective phase, characterized by long pauses and lengthy ruminations. Still, most of the band’s signature elements are at play, along with plenty exciting new directions. The country excursions are the most notable in that they’re such a stylistic departure, yet so immaculately executed. The lyrics are modestly understated, but ripe with cultural resonance, in the style we’ve come to expect from Ezra Koenig, just this time perhaps progressed a little further along. All in all, it’s a sonically lighthearted, but lyrically weighty and thought-provoking statement.
“Father of the Bride” is available May 3 on Apple Music.