Thursday, May 16, 2024

Album Review: Vampire Weekend - Only God Was Above Us

Vampire Weekend
Only Good Was Above Us
**** out of *****

The new Vampire Weekend album, Only God Was Above Us, the first in five years, is a "harder" Vampire Weekend album than their others. The music is a little grungier and noisier as the band members enter their 40s. It's still got boppy beats and features organs and choral arrangements, but it's as hard as Vampire Weekend is likely to get. This is a record that finds a band--a trio made up of lead singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, drummer Chris Tomson, and bassist Chris Baio--once darlings of a youth-driven indie scene, segueing into the throes of middle age, writing about country houses, entrenched societal cruelty, and making peace with it all.

Koenig's lyricism has always had a breezy, literary sense to it, with a distinct ability to distill the minutiae of the upper classes into spiky pop. The songs have been about girls named Bryn and smoking joints with diplomats' sons, but there is an outsider's distance to them, from the periphery looking in. Koenig's songwriting persona is a modern day Nick Carraway. On the new album, it's with an even more critical eye. One such song is "Prep-School Gangsters," which is fantastic, with a 60s pop sensibility. Its subject is on the fringes, hanging out with bluebloods, being powerless against their privilege but knowingly judging them. Koenig checks their insincere adherence to their societal standards: "It's just something people say / they don't really feel that way." But he's got their number (and his own): "Somewhere in your family tree, there was someone just like me."

Vampire Weekend's music has always had a preoccupation with legacy, lineage, and inheritance. Take the song "Hudson," from 2013's Modern Vampires of the City, a sweeping song about pre-war apartment buildings and being confined by the lines drawn on maps: "Hudson died on Hudson Bay / But I was born on Sutton Place / The rising tide helped me decide to change my name again." Now, on Only God Was Above Us, the generational legacies explored are a little less epic, a little more prosaic.

"Gen-X Cops," a rocker with a melody that evokes "Hudson," is about the grayed generation that came before Koenig and crew. The legacy that remains here is ennui and settling into one's thankless existence. "Dodged the draft, but can't dodge the war / forever cursed to live insecure," Koenig sings, and the refrain, "Each generation makes its own apology," can be universally applied to all, not just the gen Xers maintaining the inherited cultural order. "Capricorn" is lush, feedbacky, mid-tempo heaven, grappling with what life brings. "Too old for dying young / too young to live alone / sifting through centuries for moments of your own." Once again, the band explores birth, death, and the evolution and lack thereof in between.

Vampire Weekend is also very much a New York band, and this album returns to that New Yorkiness after a left turn with 2019's Father of the Bride, which attempted to be less local and more global, literally featuring a cartoon drawing of Earth as the cover art. Prior to FOTB, VW had a Lou Reed-like tendency to reference deeply local things; the second single from their self-titled debut, "A-Punk," name checks Sloan Kettering and Washington Heights.

Only God Was Above Us is a return to form. The cover art features a white-sneakered straphanger reading a copy of the Daily News from May 1, 1988, with the album title lifted from the front page headline (which was real, and was about the infamous Aloha Airlines flight that landed after its roof was torn off). The only other man on the train is standing sideways, and it could be a magical realist portrait of New York in the late 80s or alternately somewhere else in space-time. VW's music always portrays a version of New York that absolutely exists but also doesn't quite. "The Surfer" is a slower tempo astral exploration, referencing Water Tunnel 3, the only song on the album that was a little too plodding for my taste. There's even a song on this album about legendary gallerist Mary Boone. "Came in from Jersey / not from Brooklyn," Koenig croons, and it sounds like Vampire Weekend's version of Simon & Garfunkel's "America."

The album closes out with two gems. "Pravda" contains lyrics and a song structure that is Dylanesque, like it could have been written for Blood on the Tracks, Dylan's own sonic segue into middle age: "I had a job once in Penn Station / down at a tie shop called Tiecoon / Every time my shift began / I'd see that quiet businessman / I'm leaving at the rising of the moon." Then, on eight-minute-long "Hope," the mood is not sunny but more resigned, with a lesson that many of us have learned by 40: "My enemy's invincible / I've had to let it go."

For VW naysayers who prefer the harder stuff and may have been turned off by the band's previous preppy, Paul Simon cosplay, some of the songs here could win them over. For a Vampire Weekend fan, this album is a real treat, an evolution that will likely parallel one's own journey into those years of settling in and just settling.
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