Review: Vampire Weekend
As I sit in my dorm room listening to Vampire Weekend’s two new songs, I’m taken back to the winter of senior year of high school, just around the time I learned I got into Yale. That’s the power of this band: their lyrics are so forceful, often focused on a time and place in the past, that they bring back with visceral clarity, the exact time and place you last listened to them. Listening to these new songs is a deeply nostalgic experience for me.
Vampire Weekend has finally announced a new album called “Father of the Bride,” coming out in the spring, and has sated the appetite of fans in the meantime by providing two new songs, “2021” and “Harmony Hall.” The band has enjoyed immense success in the eleven years since the three classmates from Columbia, led by Ezra Koenig, first formed the alt-pop group, but right now, they are coming off a six-year hiatus. In that time, the band’s co-founder Rostam Batmanglij left the group and the lead singer Ezra Koenig had a baby with Rashida Jones. The title “Father of the Bride” is apparently an homage to the Steve Martin movie, though the original working title was “Mitsubishi Macchiato,” a funny alliteration but a strange pairing of words. The band will embark on a worldwide tour after the album is released. They are slowly releasing songs from the album until the finished product is out in the spring; these two new songs are similar but markedly different from previous works.
It is perhaps that similarity that creates the visceral response from listeners. “2021” features vocal contributions from singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis, and is based around a synth sample of “Talking,” an instrumental composition by Japanese musician Haruomi Hosono. It is unclear why they picked the year 2021 to sing about, but I already know it will be our graduation anthem. The singer asks, “2021 will you think about me / I could wait a year but I couldn’t wait three / Copper goes green, steal beams go rust.” This seems to be about getting over a relationship, pleading that it might take year, but no more than three. The reference to the material of buildings decaying suggests that the world will keep going and time will keep passing, just as eventually the singer will get over his love.
Where “2021” feels like short story, at just a minute and a half long, “Harmony Hall” is more like an ode, running a full five minutes. The band emotes: “Singers harmonize til they can’t hear anything,” perhaps read as a comment about the pressure on successful musicians to produce more music quickly, and perhaps also a small explanation of the prolonged hiatus.
I realized why these songs evoke such nostalgia for me. The songs reuse sounds and even lyrics from earlier tracks. For instance, in “Harmony Hall,” the line “ I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die” is from their 2013 song “Finger Back.” Recalling this lyric in such a way adds poignancy to the theme of time, and how words gain different meaning as we age. Their songs are meant to induce sentimentality for the listener.
My favorite line is: “Wicked snakes inside a place we thought was dignified” because that sounds to me like a pretty clear reference to an Ivy League school. You need only check out “Overheard at Yale” to see the many references to people acting like snakes. The band-members seem to have had a similar experience, stemming from their time at Columbia. By including the use of past tense (“we thought was dignified”), it echoes some of the feelings I’ve admittedly had at Yale as institutions like this inevitably cannot live up to their own illustrious reputations. The cover of the album, a green snake against a white background, echoes these lyrics. This physical imagery ties to the visual imagery evoked in the songs, in a sort of ekphrasis.
I love Vampire Weekend in large part because of the visual quality of their lyrics; it is as if they are meant to send you into fits of daydreams. This is evident in part of the chorus to Harmony Hall – “And the stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness.” I think of a physical building watching over the sins of the people below. Such is also the case with the song “Run” with the lyrics: “Worlds away from cars / And all the stars and bars / Where a little bit of condensation means so much / And a little bit of change is all your little fingers touch. I think about just leaving everything. California English, with it’s staccato rhythm and funny jargon makes me cry out for my home state of California. And I love “Step,” which has a lyric about a girl “studying frescoes,” which speaks to my love of art history. Everyone can see part of themselves in these songs.
Many people at Yale have already bought their tickets to Vampire Weekend’s September concert at the enormous venue Madison Square Garden Show. I contemplated doing the same but realized that I prefer to listen to my Vampire Weekend with a big mug of warm tea and a moment of solitude, letting nostalgia permeate.