Precocious Ivy Leaguers with an arch, slyly comic secondhand sound, Vampire Weekend has always seemed slightly younger than their years, one of consequences of their intently cultivated collegiate image, replete with prepped-out garb and snappy, tongue-in-cheek lyricism. Across two deceptively complex albums, they spun songs redolent of campus quad hangouts and New England summer vacations, merging those memories under the unlikely aegis of recycled Afro-pop tropes. The truly mature Modern Vampires of the City, however, is a big departure, charting the perils and pleasures of adulthood with impressive, singular range. As wise-cracking, uniformly attired moppets slumming in a lower weight class, consider this Vampire Weekend’s Rubber Soul, the definitive statement of a group now assured enough to start setting their own paradigms.
Despite a lingering affection for Paul Simon, evidenced in densely structured tales of wandering and melancholy, set in New York City and beyond, the album doesn’t have any specific predecessor. Tempering some of the band’s familiar affectations while amplifying others, the result is an astoundingly cohesive proclamation of modern angst, one that finds mythological, geographical, and historical antecedents for personal stories. Written after frontman Ezra Koenig’s return to his home city following a brief sojourn in L.A., the album is concerned with circular notions of journeys starting and finishing, enveloping its cyclicality within a purposefully rootless sensibility. This muted wanderlust gets detailed in fantastic, reference-steeped tracks like “Hudson,” both a tale of homecoming and an expression (finally!) of the horrors of finding an apartment in New York City.
Ambitious tracks like this one work because, despite being dotted with in-jokes, borrowed lines, and other forms of wordplay, the band’s songs aren’t brittle or overly dependent on these gimmicks. Instead Vampire Weekend uses them as inroads toward an intricate examination of fractured feelings, presenting evocative scenarios and detailing complicated emotions in great detail. As always, the band members operate more like rappers than pop singers, cribbing snippets (an opening lyric transposed from Souls of Mischief on “Step,” the medieval hymn “Dies Irae” on “Everlasting Arms”) and extending long lyrical strings of allusive free association. New producer Ariel Rechtshaid brings in his own distinctive hip-hop-inspired personality, proving a wizard at both tweaking and deepening the band’s sound, shifting pitches and highlighting instrumental oddities, turning little effects into the anchors of entire songs. He’s precise and ambitious enough that potentially irritating choices (the squeaky, garbled refrain on “Ya Hey,” the incessant vocal modulations on “Diane Young”) turn into snappy bookends for already addictive material.
Somehow, with all this lyrical and musical density, the band still manages to produce music that’s deceptively breezy and lightweight. Modern Vampires is a definitive spring album, highlighting the seasonal passage from heavy, dark coldness to lively warmth in the context of personal journeys, telling abortive stories of young lives still in bloom. This is a step away from the summery disaffection of the band’s two previous albums, which possessed similar lyrical complexity, but whose heavy reliance on borrowed Afro-pop tropes resulted in Vampire Weekend being lumped together with a lesser class of rip-off artists. Such accusations ignored the fact that the band’s entire persona, with its snooty proper nouns and upper-crust affectations, was a satirical comment on such appropriation, with an equivalent awareness of creative theft as an ingrained cultural process. Now, by moving beyond these associations into their own unique, baroque style, the band finally makes the intricacy of their music the main focus.
This development is aided by songs which mask a heavy load of literary allusion with springy pop catchiness, whether the group is contemplating a lack of religious faith on “Unbelievers” or post-adolescent wandering on “Ya Hey.” Modern Vampires repeatedly draws the modern myth of finding one’s self into the arena of religious pilgrimage, another jokey concept that works wonderfully because of how seriously the band takes it; they may be fooling around on some level, but their equation of the personal with the eternal is presented with such care and affection it becomes both emotionally effective and theoretically impressive.
Opener “Obvious Bicycle,” like many of the songs here, uses choral borrowings to introduce moments of artificial transcendence, but then comes up with original sounds that manage to match the impact of those reworked samples, turning a high school reminiscence into something aching and timeless. “Hannah Hunt” is a simple sketch that turns a cross-country road trip into the stuff of legend, gently criticizing its characters’ self-involvement while memorializing their very relatable feelings, finding referential correlatives for their entitled anxiety. The songs may be dense and literary, but they’re also immediately potent on a purely visceral level, striking a perfect balance that makes for what’s perhaps the best album in a year already thick with great material.