Obvious Bicycle: Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City Turns 10
Looking back on the New York band’s classic third album
Reviewing a Vampire Weekend album can be an anxious burden; there’s already so many words and a sense of dread that anything the writer adds is only ballooning the total because so many of them actually need to be quoted.
Luckily, 37 words on this particular magnum opus are “time” and 15 are “young.” (“Diane Young” alone is responsible for 21 of the former and five of the latter.) “Youth” is mentioned once, in tandem with “age,” “the clock” makes appearances in two separate numbers, and one of the tunes that features neither “time” nor “young” does include the word “death.” And don’t start me on the Yahweh stuff. What could’ve been on Ezra Koenig’s mind when his band released Modern Vampires of the City a decade ago, probably the greatest midlife crisis album by a white dork since — that’s funny — Graceland? Maybe greater.
We better salute the music before going down that particular rabbit hole, though, because that’ll be a while. I resisted my favorite rock album of the 2010s at first because any trace of their gorgeously and tersely xeroxed Afropop was gone, along with the fluidly harmonized guitar lines of “A-Punk” and “White Sky” that went with it. Modern Vampires is unquestionably Atlantic as fuck, pushing Rostam Batmanglij’s baroque Euro-classical motifs of “M79” to the fore. “Don’t Lie” ambles along with “Penny Lane” bombast, brittle harpsichords strike a mallet every which way, and “Unbelievers” climaxes with a pennywhistle-Yankee Doodle section that’s positively John Philip Sousa. “Worship You” collapses two, uh, patriotic bellwethers: hymns to above and military drumrolls. “Finger Back” is definitely sporting a powdered wig. If anything, this is Upper West Side Lexington and Concord. Or if you prefer, Plymouth Rock ‘n’ Roll.
VIDEO: Vampire Weekend “Diane Young”
After they spent so much of their great-to-excellent first two albums mining Sir Victor Uwaifo and The Rough Guide to Congo Gold for sweet riffs it’s an impressive in-joke in itself how much the third completely dodges African-American musical tradition as it plants a firm foot in the Western hemisphere. That’s not what makes it good, of course. Batmanglij’s incredible arrangements, as always with this band, circumvented preconception better than any rock artist I can think of, Paul Simon included. Simon’s sources may have been esoteric once but their awesomeness was obvious; Batmanglij turns brass-band, white gospel, and symphonic junk into truly holy crap elevating the best and deepest tunes Koenig will ever conceive.
The test case, “Step” is probably definitive: Koenig raps about Angkor Wat, Croesus, and Modest Mouse like a valedictorian’s “One Week” over Batmanglij’s “Canon in D” trip-hop. The two exceptions come from very different African-American musical strains tied together by contemporary pitch-shifting mischief: The rockabilly hiccups of “Diane Young” and the otherwise buoyant chipmunked soul of “Ya Hey,” with its backwards-OutKast title. On music alone you can put this thing in the Louvre, packed like a clogged bowl into 42 word-and-sound-drunk minutes that make good on their thematic urgency despite a considerably downer mood tempo than anything the band had done before.
What was slightly lost on me in 2013 was how tightly plotted this concept album was, fewer holes than almost any other I can think of, probably because there’s no plot. But there is. Clean-chinned Koenig (well, or a character who actually needs to land that job interview) contemplates not shaving because why bother. Tries to convince some presumed partner, perhaps the one who will die with him as “unbelievers,” that he’s “ready for the house” and no longer a hoarder, despite her indifference to “Diane Young” (sound it out, idiot), which may involve heading even further west than the Upper West Side — Phoenix, even — and maybe losing her before returning home to the Hudson bay after asking the guy upstairs why he demands blind faith. By the close, we’re not supposed to mourn this breakup because, as in the excellent Hulu adaptation of Lindy West’s Shrill, in his next life chapter he can do anything.
But I had no idea ten years ago how adherent this album’s lyrical thread was; it virtually never strays from concept. There’s a less apparent stretch in the second half, where the dense “Finger Back” (which still ponders the “road to hell” between two pieces of God fodder) still eventually collapses into a pile of “I don’t wanna live like this / But I don’t wanna die” exhortations that continue past this album all the way to 2019’s “Harmony Hall.” That’s it for relative abstractions; “it’s been 20 years and no one’s told the truth” at the album’s outset becomes the reminder “age is an honor, it’s still not the truth” in one of its three arguable centerpieces, “Step.” And if “no one’s gonna spare their time for you,” then is “you and me we’ve got our own sense of time” from “Hannah Hunt” quietly rebellious? Is that a new, pithier definition of love, finding someone you’re willing to spare your time for?
The same song, “Obvious Bicycle” both insists we listen over and over, in its cascading multi-tracked chorus, while answering this call with “don’t wait,” an implication that who has time to listen anyway? Do I have to point out the obvious double-edged sword of “you’ve got the luck of a Kennedy” in a tune called “Diane Young?” I also swore that “you torched a Saab like a pile of leaves” was “you toss a salad like a pile of leaves,” though I was less confident that the real line is “I’ve got to find some better weed.” Koenig has that much fun that it was plausible; this is a guy savvy enough to write his nerves off as “you know I love the past ‘cause I hate suspense.” He’s been doing the hip-to-be-square dance for so long that it doesn’t even register as nostalgic pathos. That’s a David Byrne trick if there ever was one, though Koenig loses points because you can’t dance to his neuroses, not this time.
The final question of this album, after eventually picking up the pieces of “Finger Back,” is “Who could ever live that way?” The final words, the entirety of the envoi “Young Lion,” are “You take your time, young lion.” Motherfucker of an ending, a reminder that no matter what your success d’estime of the week is or how obsessed it is with mortality — “Hudson” is driven by ticking-clock percussion at one point, christ — you should still enjoy yourself and figure out your own life needs at your own pace. Ezra Koenig did; he followed up this album by starting a family with Quincy Jones’ most famous progeny instead of the next Vampire Weekend music over half a decade later.
Father of the Bride, the frontman told Stereogum in 2019, celebrated the freedom from the questions this album couldn’t escape. But like any great existential film, book, or album, Modern Vampires of the City thrilled us beginning to end by pretending those finding one’s identity and life path in those debates made a crucial difference.
Getting stuck on meaning can be great for the soul, even if the soul is meaningless. I mean, what is the meaning of art? Maybe the meaning of life is pleasure, and Modern Vampires of the City was nothing but pleasure.
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