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Vampire Weekend Start a New Chapter on the Ambitious Father of the Bride

on May 03, 2019, 11:26am

The Lowdown: In an interview with GQ this past January, Ezra Koenig described Modern Vampires of the City, the last Vampire Weekend album, which came out in 2013, as about “Being in your late 20s and being like, ‘Life is crazy. I’m gonna die.’” When it came time to write Father of the Bride, the band’s first album since, Koenig took a long break to figure out what comes next. In that period, Koenig wrote with Beyoncé and Kanye West, created the Netflix series Neo Yokio, and became a father alongside his partner Rashida Jones. Father of the Bride finds a different Koenig, one content to slow down, urgency replaced by patience, and wit supplemented with wisdom. The characters in his songs follow a similar pattern, often unmoored with restlessness and uncertainty, but taking the time to breathe. The anxious college students portrayed in stories on Vampire Weekend and Contra are now parents and divorcees, seeing the world through a different lens, noting how fleeting it all can be.

(Listen: Rostam on Leaving Vampire and Going Solo)

Vampire Weekend is also a different band on this album after founding member Rostam Batmanglij’s departure in 2016 to pursue a solo career. While he has two credits on Father of the Bride, helping produce “Harmony Hall” and co-writing and co-producing “We Belong Together”, Batmanglij’s absence is deeply felt. With the band growing smaller, they decided to work with outside collaborators like Steve Lacy, DJ Dahl, and Danielle Haim, the last of whom sings co-lead or backing vocals on nearly half of the album. Koenig also reunited with Ariel Rechtshaid, who co-produced Modern Vampires of the City, to retain a similar sheen that elevated that record. Even so, Father of the Bride is unmistakably the beginning of a new chapter for Vampire Weekend. While Koenig’s writing is seldom explicitly autobiographical, the split weighs heavy on an album filled with fractured relationships.

The Good: Rather than running back the hits, the band takes a bold step forward on the ambitious, often experimental 18-song double album. Snippets of Hans Zimmer’s score from The Thin Red Line and Japanese musician Haruomi Hosono’s compositions are interspersed as Koenig weaves together elements of country, reggae, adult contemporary, and lounge into his repertoire. Unsurprisingly, it never sounds like anything other than Vampire Weekend, whether he’s trading witty banter alongside Danielle Haim like they’re Johnny and June on “Married in a Gold Rush” or interpolating a chorus from a 2014 Makonnen song and turning it into bold self-actualization on “This Life”. At times, he steps all the way out of his comfort zone like on “Flower Moon”, where a loose psych hook is layered upon itself as Steve Lacy joins in singing and helps the song to blossom into an overwhelming rush and one of the band’s most hypnotic melodies yet.

Written over a five-year period after the band began winding down a world tour in 2014, Father of the Bride finds its characters unsettled. Even when being consumed by the rush of love, like on the duet “We Belong Together,” there’s always a focus on how it might end. The album is as much about endings as it is new beginnings, starting with the opening song “Hold You Now”, where Haim and Koenig take on two sides of a last-ditch attempt to stop a wedding, with Haim coyly singing, “This ain’t the end of nothing much/ It’s just another round.” Koenig captures the intricacies of relationships growing and withering with a starry-eyed, yet humane, approach that recalls Jens Lekman, especially on “Spring Snow”, an in media res tale of a heavy snow prolonging a farewell, with the narrator lamenting that the sun’s rays will carry his lover away from his arms in a moving snapshot. On highlight “Unbearably White”, Koenig crafts a tender ballad of a relationship breaking, capturing all the pained emotions of saying goodbye with lines like, “It’s what you thought that you wanted/ It’s still a surprise.” The album reaches its brightest point on “Stranger”, the only song to directly reference his relationship with Rashida Jones with a namedrop of her sister, as Koenig pulls back the curtain a bit to capture that moment in a relationship where you begin to yourself as a part of their life, nailing the rush of how that feels.

The Bad: The combination of Batmanglij leaving and a desire to explore unfamiliar sounds leads to the biggest departures in the band’s sonic palette to date, like the jam-rock of “Sunflower” and the country duet on “Married in a Gold Rush.” Often it works well, the way the chorus on “Stranger” recalls ‘70s Fleetwood Mac before the horns come in and Koenig vamps through the verses like Rod Stewart. Occasionally, this finds the band bristling against their limits, as the piano ballad “My Mistake” approaches a maudlin sentiment less poignantly than a song like “Hudson”. This is immediately followed by “Sympathy”, a heightened track with touches of surf-rock in the riffs that centers on isolation and tribalism, with a refrain that loses a touch more impact on each repetition. Koenig relies frequently on repetition and wordplay, with this an example of it not working quite as well as on “Unbearably White” or “Rich Man”.

“Sympathy” is also another example of Koenig’s lyrics being slightly opaque, drawing on his outspoken leftist political views (Koenig notably endorsed and supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary) and own identity and socioeconomic status. This comes into play on “Rich Man”, a tongue-in-cheek ditty built off a sample from a song by Sierra Leone guitarist S.E. Rogie that plays as both a touching love song and a bitter reminder of the country’s extreme wealth disparity, written from the point of view of a fairly rich musician. Koenig’s writing contains all of this, fully aware of his own place in the paradigm and willing to examine that. He does this again on the beautiful closer, “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”, a lament that doesn’t attempt to fully unpack thousands of years of struggle, but strives to reconcile his Jewish-American identity with his own view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the key line “don’t let them restart that genocidal feeling that beats in every heart” that forms the crux of the song. That the song and album never reach a clear resolution is the point of it all.

The Verdict: As arguably the most influential indie rock band of the last 10 years and certainly one of the handful left who still headline festivals, Vampire Weekend’s impact on the genre cannot be overstated. In that same GQ interview, Koenig said, “On the last record, I had this slight feeling that we got a little bit too big.“ Father of the Bride may not be a direct rebuttal against that feeling, but its slower pace, dalliances in classic pop and AOR, and shift in perspective find a band wanting to forge their own path ahead. Father of the Bride is concerned with history, filled with explicit references and implicit nods, though not consumed by it. While it could literally be called “dad-rock” given Koenig’s newfound fatherhood, the better word might be mature, understanding how love, lust, and loss feel different each time, less immediate but deeper. Father of the Bride may not have the initial excitement and glistening energy of the band’s now-classic first three albums, but it offers a rewarding and audacious achievement of its own.

Essential Tracks: “Harmony Hall”, “This Life”, “Unbearably White”, “Flower Moon”, and “Stranger”

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