What’s your favorite band?
As recently as freshman year of high school, that was a question I was asked with the expectation that I had an answer. I didn’t, or at least not a good one, but then, it was easy to chalk up my lack of a reasonable response to my total lack of music knowledge. When it came to bands, if they didn’t score fan-made YouTube videos of anime, I didn’t know them. But even though I now I consider myself at least somewhat capable of holding a conversation with someone who reads Pitchfork regularly, it’s still hard to come up with an answer to that question.
Maybe the internet is to blame for this. In the age of torrents and Tumblr, it’s possible to listen to a new album by a different band every day; in fact, I know at least one person who plans on doing this exact thing over the summer. As for the people who couldn’t care less about what music critics consider “cool,” iTunes’ lists of popular songs fluctuate constantly as well. Despite such an environment, I have arrived at an answer for who my favorite band is, and they just released an amazing third album that provides me with opportunities for all kinds of triumphant “I told you so's."
I decided Vampire Weekend was my favorite band last summer, when an amazing headlining set at Pitchfork Music Festival produced a Proust-like epiphany: I realized that “A-Punk” was the first indie song I really got into, way back when, and that their September 2010 show at the Aragon was the first real concert I went to. I also knew all the words to most of their songs, as one particularly annoyed girl standing in front of me pointed out at Pitchfork.
It’s crazy that I made this decision months before Modern Vampires of the City was released. This third album is brilliant and heartfelt, and, as the band members themselves have said, feels like the conclusion of a trilogy. First, their self-titled 2008 debut announced their touch for mixing jumpy Afropop-tinged beats with occasionally obtuse lyrics featuring mostly upper-middle class characters. Then there was 2010 follow-up Contra, which unapologetically went full-on Graceland. MVOTC is more mature, addressing grand themes of love and death. It’s actually kind of amazing how Vampire Weekend managed to address previous criticisms of their work without compromising their identity.
Criticisms? Of Vampire Weekend? Yes, they exist. Sometimes they seem more like half-hearted attempts to disparage the reputation of a national politician than legitimate music criticism. For example, the woman who sued them over using her face for Contra's album art or the hubbub over burning cars in one of their recent music videos. All the same, for the longest time, saying Vampire Weekend was your favorite band was a pretty contentious claim among music critics. As a Village Voice piece from the time of their first album summarized, those criticisms usually centered around lyrics that at times seemed uselessly verbose and like an appropriation of Afropop that seemed a lot like muscial colonialism. I personally never bought into those criticisms, especially when it comes to Contra. Songs like “I Think Ur a Contra” displayed an emotional depth that the band wasn’t always given credit for, possibly because fast-paced jams like “Cousins” and “Holiday” seemed so brainless.
MVOTC has no such holes. Each song, be it single or deep album cut, seamlessly weaves together beautiful indie-pop instrumentation and complicated lyrics about grandiose topics. As a result, it's already created a lot of converts. A recent Bo Burnham Vine does a good job of explaining why, and Pitchfork’s review actually compiled a list of tweets from people saying that they used to hate Vampire Weekend until they heard “Diane Young,” the lead single whose title is a pun on “dyin’ young” and a New York anti-aging salon. Its music is jumpy, noisy indie pop without being strictly African, an expansion of sound that makes sense without going back to the same old well too often.
As far as multi-entendres go, even “Diane Young” pales in comparison to “Ya Hey.” In the past, Vampire Weekend had a tendency to co-op rap music in their songs; if you listen to “Oxford Comma” beyond the infamous chorus, you’ll realize they quote Lil Jon extensively. There’s not really a reason for them doing that, beyond the fact that it’s funny the first time you realize it. Like their music video for "Holiday," which features the band driving around in a golf cart dressed like members of Louis XIV's court, it seems like an in-your-face reference for the sake of silliness.
In contrast, “Ya Hey” makes all kinds of sense. It flips around the title of you-know-which-famous-pop-song and makes it sound like the Jewish name of God, turning it into a redress of cosmic grievances. The song is a beautiful meditation on the place of faith in a modernized society, with lyrics like “America don’t love you/So I could never love you." When you’re immersed in “Ya Hey,” it’s easy to forget the OutKast reference in the title, but when you do remember it, it brings a smile to your face instead of making you roll your eyes. Digging deeper into this album turns up more and more references, but they don’t appear to exist for simple “look how awesome my Ivy League education is” reasons. They merely heighten the entertainment experience of listening to already highly enjoyable music.
Speaking of references, get ready for “Step,” the best song on the album, and the best song Vampire Weekend has produced. Here is a quick list of things referenced on the song: Modest Mouse, Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, pretty much every city ever, the ancient Greek King Croesus and the rap group Souls of Mischief, whose deep cut “Step To My Girl” is obviously a major influence on the song’s title, lyrics and even sound. But all these references work in harmony, contributing to a story about a speaker who has traveled the world and read all kinds of books but still can’t get past basic feelings of jealousy and love. The song takes all the things Vampire Weekend is good at and does them very well.
Of course, this album is more than just singles. Granted, at this point you should realize how much of a fanboy I am, but I'm seriously struggling to find a song I don't like. "Hannah Hunt" is probably one of their best non-singles, an emotional song that plays like a better version of "I Think Ur a Contra" and "Everlasting Arms" is a highly enjoyable compression of MVOTC's obsession with God and eternity.
The whole “conclusion of a trilogy” thing inspires some slight fears about this being a finale, but considering how short and inconclusive the final song “Young Lion” is, it’s a possibility that there’s still much more to come from my favorite band.