By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
When Vampire Weekend released their debut album in 2008, the group had concocted an astonishingly unique and strangely polarizing musical and visual aesthetic. Drawing from any and every cultural signifier in their Columbia-molded cache, the New York quartet conflated The Indestructible Beat of Soweto’s emphasis on primal rhythm and groove with the aristocratic idiom of Western Classical Music and packaged the dyad in the unfairly maligned fashion of prep culture. As the band’s musical vision progressed and the group began to engage with Tropicália, dance music, and baroque pop on subsequent albums, their sound became more expansive and varied, but it remained true to the sonic underpinnings established on that first record.
Their progressive-yet-homeostatic musical identity can largely be attributed to producer/arranger/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, whose allegiance to both Classical and pop music had informed Vampire Weekend’s first three albums before his departure in early 2016. Declaring the move an effort against being overshadowed by his work with the Vampires, Rostam left the band to forge his own artistic identity by producing for the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Frank Ocean, as well as collaborating with indie veteran Hamilton Leithauser. And now, at the age of 33, Rostam has released his debut solo album Half-Light, a record that typifies his facility for layered, warm production and distills so much of what set Vampire Weekend apart from their peers.
Given VW frontman Ezra Koenig’s penchant for the occasional sharp, jarring vocal tick and octave-jumping melodic acrobatics, Rostam has often served as the Panda Bear to Koenig’s Avey Tare, singing equally engaging, but more unassuming, unadorned melodies in comparison to his bandmate’s vocal apoplexy. As such, Batmanglij has created a reticent persona for himself, one who often shies from the spotlight, seeking attention rather passively in relation to the pop stars with whom he’s worked in the past.
Rostam’s timidity abounds on the record, as evidenced on cuts such as Never Going to Catch Me, in which Batmanglij’s dry, straining voice all but submits to the multifaceted backing music and the monotone vocal double tracks. For much of Half-Light, Batmanglij vies with his instrumentation for the listener’s attention, yet unlike, say, The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, who matches his bandmates’ garage-rock aggression with equally truculent vocals, Rostam instead metamorphoses his voice to suit the dynamics of each song as he sees fit. Take the opening track Sumer, for example, whereby Batmanglij’s weary, but optimistic, singing initially yields to the worldbeat instrumentation, only to triumph at the chorus’s melismatic conclusion. For Rostam, striking a balance between music and lyrics is an ongoing game of cat and mouse.
While Half-Light derives much tension from the capricious relationship between its singer and instrumentals, Rostam also makes use of the dichotomy between Eastern and Occidental sounds, much in the same way he did during his time with Vampire Weekend. On the song Wood, sitars and tablas coalesce with a Western string section, with the end result combining the pensiveness of The Beatles’ Within You Without You with the vim of their Inner Light. Elsewhere, Rostam indulges in avant-pop, as on the jubilantly hectic Bike Dream, or on Hold On, in which fellow Dirty Projectors alum Angel Deradoorian joins Batmanglij for a glitchy R&B number worthy of a spot on Dave Longstreth’s last album under the band’s name. As has always been his talent, Rostam amalgamates musical customs from around the world in a way that neither disorients his audience nor dilutes those original styles.
Extending the symbol as far as it can reach, Half-Light employs the motif of illumination (or lack thereof) to mark Batmanglij’s struggle with pinning down a satisfactory narrative in his search for capital-T Truth. On the title track, this Light-as-Truth is too effulgent to reveal anything: “All the lights came up to illuminate the room/ Blinded me, I shut my eyes to see an imprint of you.” It seems that a half light is a better means of relief than discovery: “The light falls through the room/ And all of it don’t seem so hard.” On the didactic When, Batmanglij exhorts the listener to disregard the dogma of the all-encompassing “They:” “They gon’ tell you what to feel/… And you chip a tooth, but it was on the truth/ …I’m here to tell you don’t listen to them.” But as Rostam finds, one can only arrive at an epiphany on his or her own volition. This sentiment is articulated on Don’t Let it Get to You and its reprise: “Even when it don’t make sense/… Don’t let it get to you/… I know that you won’t realize it/ But it’s still all up to you.”
Rostam Batmanglij has been on the sidelines of pop music for some time now. As the humble keyboardist of Vampire Weekend and the underappreciated producer for a host of pop hits, Rostam was never seen as an indie-rock tastemaker. Instead, he quietly worked on a wide swathe of genre-challenging albums and singles, and, after ten years in the industry, is finally getting a fair shake. If Half-Light doesn’t establish Batmanglij as the musical titan he’s so ambitiously strived to be, it should at least reaffirm his unwavering dedication to crafting songs that can endear, stupefy, and comfort—all in the course of a few minutes.