words fae sean hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
“I think… there’s something inherently interesting [about preppiness],” Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig confesses to Anthony Mason, responding to the flak the group caught for their sartorially-obsessed image. For haters who are still hung up on the band’s appearance, Vampire Weekend’s unassailably straight-laced wardrobe is a constant point of derision, as it calls into question the matter of the band’s authenticity in rock circles. But authenticity is a moot point in most rock music anyway, and image is the most superficial of its signifiers.
Spawned from the dorms of Columbia University, Vampire Weekend compounded their belletristic interests with a democratic passion for music that spans the entirety of the globe. Koenig provided thoughtful, reference-heavy lyrics to their songs, while producer/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij condensed his appreciation for classical, experimental, and world music into concise pop sonatas. Bassist Chris Baio plays stoically, capable of delicate melody as well as pithy foundation. Drummer Chris Tomson often favors an African-inspired floor-tom drum arrangement, recalling experimentalists like Mo Tucker as well as the rhythms of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.
Despite eliciting such strong reactions from anti-Weekenders, Vampire Weekend have proven themselves an indelible phenomenon in this current iteration of indie rock. Their clean, poppy sound, understated sense of humor, and alacrity to explore new styles and genres with each album combine to form an inimitable aesthetic with an astounding consistency. And as the band’s forthcoming album moves at a glacial pace, with the band giving sporadic updates that quantify the album’s completion by tenths of a percent, it seems appropriate to look back at one of pop music’s most inventive bands of the last decade and evaluate their top ten songs.
10. Mansard Roof
Beginning with a hyper-specific reference to the architectural style of the same name, Mansard Roof is a treatise, an entrée into the world of Vampire Weekend. A sprightly 1-2-3 drum and organ pump heralds its opening line. “I see a mansard roof through the trees,” Koenig cheerily declares, “I see a salty message written in the eaves.” Even without the accompanying music video, it’s hard not to imagine Koenig and company dressed in Oxford shirts and Sperry’s as they contemplate the sloping roof of a nearby building while they themselves stand bayside. Mansard Roof, like the rest of Vampire Weekend’s debut album, said to the world, “We’re preppy, we’re smart, but we’re not too uptight about it.”
It sounds like a song Wes Anderson would co-opt for a critical scene in one of his films, but Arrows is, in fact, one of Vampire Weekend’s most elusive and celebrated rarities. Recorded around the time of their 2008 debut, Arrows combines the energy of their live shows with the studio craft that would come to define the band. Tight, Billy Ficca-inspired drumming abounds, a rich, cello-led string section bookends the song, and effusive Afrobeat guitar runs punctuate the verses. Arrows could well have replaced nearly any song on Vampire Weekend, but part of its charm rests in its obscurity. For Vampire obsessives, it remains a well-kept secret, one that rewards those willing to dig deeper than the picayune three albums.
Its opening line is borrowed from a Souls of Mischief rarity, its chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon, its chorus from Bread’s Aubrey. Vampire Weekend pulled out all the stops for their third single on Modern Vampires of the City. Serving partly as a trenchant self-examination as well as an affirmation of personal growth, Step finds Koenig at odds with his opulent past: “Home in New York was champagne and disco” while recognizing his own oncoming maturity: “I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house.” In the song’s chorus are nods to Modest Mouse and outsider artist Jandek, both of which seem arbitrary in the context of the lyrics, but that’s sort of the point. For all of Vampire Weekend’s incessant name checking and bookish tendencies, there exists some modicum of profundity in their lyrical encyclopedia.
7. Ya Hey
Arguably the centerpiece of Modern Vampires of the City, Ya Hey is part indictment, part paean to its mysterious second-person subject. “Oh, sweet thing, America don’t love you/ So I could never love you/ In spite of everything,” pronounces Koenig in a mellifluous, Chet Baker-channeling coo. Ya Hey is partly about failing institutions, with Koenig running through a catalogue of people and things that have taken leave of this ambiguous “you.” Like a cynical take on the wish list of Girls’ Lust for Life, Ezra reminds her that the Motherland, the Zion, and religious zealots will never requite her adoration. The song’s climax arrives at the 4:40 mark as the chorus repeats and Koenig is joined by full band and choir. He confidently reassures, “Through the fire and through the flames/ You won’t even say your name/ Only, “I am that I am.” Those lines manage to fit in allusions to the eternally uncool DragonForce, the venerable Peter Tosh, and the confounding Hebrew expression Yahweh puts to Moses. Each referent is given without a hint of hierarchy, as is Vampire Weekend’s m.o., which is to be expected from a man who “swoons” upon hearing a DJ transition from Israelites to 19th Nervous Breakdown.
6. The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance
“You criticize the practice by murdering their plants.” Vampire Weekend weren’t great at penning sensationalistic lyrics on their first album. They were acutely aware of this, however, which is why so many of the images in that record’s lyrics are impressionistic rather than explosive. The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance, which closes the band’s extraordinary debut, doubles down on the imagery VW knew they’d be chided for by detractors. Shiny cufflinks, pinstripe-clad men of distinction, and a hoard of money ($40 million, to be precise) populate Kids, all of which are sung about with a self-aware smirk by Koenig. With an instrumental track just as jaunty as anything else on Vampire Weekend, The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance closes out the album with poise, refinement, and an admirable amount of care and dedication.
5. California English Pt. 2
A B-side in the Vampire Weekend catalogue, California English Pt. 2 ultimately lost a spot on Contra to its more energetic predecessor. But the song meets or exceeds nearly any track on that album in terms of songcraft. Featuring a collection of slowly building keyboard lines that reside somewhere between dream pop and electronica, Pt. 2 finds the group at a lyrical and musical high water mark. As always, Ezra’s libretto considers the social and spiritual implications of growing up well-off with humor and tact. “Are our parents actually Buddhist? Is the pool below me the bluest?” he wonders to himself, fully aware of the contradiction between those two thoughts. The chorus is simple enough: an exultant “Oh, California!” sung with the reverence of any one of those great Golden State artists, be they The Mamas and The Papas or Katy Perry or whoever.
4. I Think Ur a Contra
Never mind the text message spelling in its title, I Think Ur a Contra is a song of enormous breadth and depth. Parlaying a more-or-less civil break up into a meditation on the superficiality of romanticized wealth and poverty, the Contra closer showcases Vampire Weekend’s greatest asset: their ability to transmute petty angst into sweeping societal critiques. “When you turn away from me/ It’s not right,” Koenig croons over an amorphous pillow of synthesizers and fidgeting guitar effects. It’s an overly simple summation of a failed romance, one that rock and pop music employ out of fear of nuance. But at I Think’s bridge comes a dramatic change: Rostam’s sky-clearing string arrangement brings out the philosopher in Koenig as he cuts down his ex’s hypocrisies. She wants “good schools and friends with pools,” but she also wants “rock and roll, complete control.” On one end are the attractions of pedigree, on the other, the promises of populism. Koenig himself is wary of both, demurring, “Well, I don’t know.” I Think Ur a Contra is as much a scathing breakup song as it is a self-conscious swipe at the lifestyle the band had been touting for their first two albums.
For all their enthrallment with African guitar pop and European Chamber music, Vampire Weekend are first and foremost a New York band. They sing about Washington Heights and Taqueria y Fonda as if they were the cruxes of the world, and on M79, their ode to the NYC bus route of the same name, the band limn the city as the hub of cultural eclecticism it’s known to be as well as a site of personal disillusionment familiar to natives and non-locals alike. Touchstones of the Upper West Side are mentioned casually, like the taxis and rickshaws perambulating up and down the streets and the sights in Central Park (abbreviated to “The Park”). Still, though, there’s something universal to these lyrics: as the girl in the song passes her French and Buddhist classmates at Columbia, she’s cautioned not to think anything racist or jingoistic. It’s the common dilemma of being faced with other cultures, other ways of life, and wondering just how valid they really are. Or how valid our own is.
2. Hannah Hunt
Travel has long been a staple of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, but it was often underscored with the lightheartedness of a vicenarian viewing the world’s wonders from a safe distance. The trips to Spain, Cape Cod, and Darjeeling were just perks of the privilege the band would spend much of their career trying to shake off. But on Hannah Hunt, the desultory couple driving to Santa Barbara from Rhode Island discover a malaise in themselves that vacationing can’t allay. The song’s breezy, twinkling piano and guileless rhythm section betray its despondent subject matter, often submitting graciously to Koenig’s weary vocals. That is, until the song reaches its infamous bridge. “If I can’t trust you, then dammit, Hannah!/ There’s no future, there’s no answer,” he cries, the music swelling under him in a pained climax. On Hannah Hunt, Vampire Weekend perfect the musical travelogue, stealing it away from hackneyed Springsteen wannabes and reclaiming it for the indie crowd.
1. Diplomat’s Son
The penultimate song on Contra, Diplomat’s Son synthesizes every trick the band employed on their sophomore record into a six-minute mini-concerto. Delicate synths (more refined than the simple keyboards on Vampire Weekend), expansive, varied percussion, and lush orchestral dalliances comprise this experimental Afro-pop melodrama. Co-writers Koenig and Batmanglij construct the scene with stark lyrical economy, penning lines like, “It’s not right/ but it’s now or never/ And if I wait/ Could I ever forgive myself?” Diplomat’s Son describes the turmoil of a man questioning his sexuality as the trappings of his privileged upbringing begin to fail him. Buzzing TVs are left unattended at home, car keys are hidden at a party, white shoes are strewn inside a bathtub. In a moment of hasty abandon, he gets high and sleeps with a close friend, who departs before morning. Like Contra on the whole, Son finds Vampire Weekend moving away from the faux-existential crises of post-collegiate life and stepping into the real world, one of frustration, confusion, and desertion.