In an enervated year for music, when pop was rightfully eclipsed by Far More Important Matters, Vampire Weekend were as close as our little community got to a polarizing controversy. Why, this very newspaper felt obliged to run two opposed reviews of the New York City quartet’s self-titled debut upon its January release: Mike Powell’s tempered praise facing off against Julianne Shepherd’s a priori indignation.
Variations on these memes rippled across the criticscape all year long. Yet even the accolades were oddly defensive, hedged with disclaimers. British music mag FACT, for instance, prefaced its endorsement of “I Stand Corrected” as #11 in their Top 100 Tracks of 2008 with “There are a million reasons to hate Vampire Weekend,” while just the other day, I stumbled on a LiveJournal entry that began: “I have about a million reasons to reject Vampire Weekend, but . . .” (One million? Clearly, these are some pretty loathsome fellows!) I’d like to get to the other side of that “but” myself, to talk about rapture and shining eyes and that rare aesthetic sensation of miraculousness that occurs when you encounter, against stacked historical odds, Something New Under the Sun. But the reasons-to-be-sneerful are interesting, deserve dissection, might even be revealing.
Already I hear the naysayers bleating, “Something New?! But they’re so derivative!” (This, from Deerhunter fans.) No new instruments have been invented, it’s true, and here and there on Vampire Weekend, you’ll pick up a faint scent of things you might have heard before: a bounce of Beat in “A-Punk,” Orange Juice’s just-brushed sheen, Monochrome Set’s suave wit. The most common reference point (apart from Graceland, which seemingly crops up because it’s the sole example of African-influenced rock most people know) is early Talking Heads. And that’s a telling comparison, not because VW sound like them—they don’t—but because of the crisp, clutterless clarity of the sound, a transparency of structure that allows you to see both the perfection and the unorthodoxy of the way the songs move and build. Unfugged by nu-shoegaze haze, the equality between the instruments shines through—the bass, the keyboards, the guitar, and the drums all take turns as the star.
But where the Talking Heads comparison really fits is the identical set of accusations hurled at both bands: politeness, calculation, detachment, neatness. (In its charticle survey of 2008, New York magazine placed Vampire under “Despicable” for “further digging rock and roll’s grave” by appearing on SNL in sweaters!) Those insults are predicated on the positing of a subversive power to rudeness, spontaneity, wildness, and mess—a too-easy equation shaky even in Byrne & Co.’s day and now fully crumbled (although you can find its pantomime enacted still at Wolf Eyes or Monotonix shows). Given the nature of modern media and our crazed archival culture, it’s obvious that no halfway sentient band can come into being without premeditation, the meticulous marshalling and coordination of influences and reference points. Knowingness irretrievably entered the water table long ago, and Vampire Weekend simply take this foundation of modern music—the impossibility of not overthinking things, of not riddling your work with footnotes and hyperlinks—and push through to full-blown conceptualism. They began with a handful of ideas (including the occasional convergence of Johnny Marr’s playing in the Smiths with African guitar pop, along with an impulse to investigate the preppy aesthetic) and proceeded to assemble a tour de force amalgam of form and content.
Pressed to distill that merger’s essence to a phrase, I’d offer “form & formality.” The latter is obviously a thread through those odious-to-some lyrics, like the archly phrased dandy disdain of “Your collegiate grief has left you/Dowdy in sweatshirts/Absolute horror!” But it equally pervades the music, whose symmetry and serenity recall the gardens of English stately homes—all terraced geometric flower beds, manicured topiary, and exquisitely landscaped slopes. The most audacious and delightful aspect of VW’s sound is the seeming incongruity between the African guitar parts and the quasi-classical flourishes, supplied equally by a genuine palm-court string section and Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboard ersatz. This sound clash works like a charm because the European and African elements share an emotional tone (uplifting, rhapsodic), but also stem from hierarchical societies. The kind of African ensembles from which Vampire Weekend have borrowed licks set a high premium on slickness, tightness, and regimentation; early King Sunny Adé albums often feature songs titled after local dignitaries—a doctor or chieftain or, in one case, “The Late General Murtala Mohammed,” a Nigerian military dictator.
The band’s (alleged, assumed) upper-class status often garners Strokes comparisons, with the underlying implication that “people like that simply shouldn’t be in popular music, because they’re not of The People.” The affinity between the two bands runs deeper: As Regina Spektor told an interviewer, “The thing that blew my mind first hearing the Strokes was that they were the closest I had heard rock come to classical. Their music is extraordinarily orderly and composed.” As Mike Powell further noted, VW are as much Anglophiles as Afrophiles, with most of their musical touchstones and lyrical allusions relating to Old England or New England. They’ve merely outed the truth of indie, which was never really The People’s Music for all its affected sloppiness and “beautiful loser” tropes, instead always much more of an upper-middle-class milieu, the kids recoiling from the commercial and mass-produced just like their parents did via artisanal foodstuffs and antiques. In his Spin profile, Andy Greenwald observed frontman Ezra Koenig’s “encyclopedic knowledge” of pop history and his “clinical, removed” way of speaking about it—”as if it were all a glorious steam table that had been laid out specifically for him to feast upon.” Ouch! Except that for better or worse, we’re all of us aristocratic listeners these days, able to sample “vibes” from anywhere and everywhere.
Vampire Weekend make more amusing and thought-provoking play from the signifiers of wealth and exclusivity than any rapper I’ve heard these past several years. (But then, Vampire Weekend has more interesting rhythms than any hip-hop record I’ve heard these past several years.) Their shit is tight, like their asses, because flawlessness is part of their aesthetic game plan—it’s what the record had to be and is. (The only defect I can find is that the lyric doesn’t actually read as Peter Gabriel II.) How righteous that 2008 should have started with some literally African-American music to herald the election of a literally African-American president. Funny, too, how all the attributes that describe (and, in some eyes, condemn) the band—cultivated and cosmopolitan, calm and collected, cautious and clean-cut—apply so amply to Obama. It’s as if history had twisted its way around to arrive at a place where the virtues in our polity are also the virtues in our pop music. Unlike sax addict Bill C. or faux-populist George W., our new prez doesn’t have a rock ‘n’ roll bone in his body, and neither do Vampire Weekend. This year’s best, their album is not Gossip Girl set to music, but a soundtrack for the liberal elite taking over.