Vampire Weekend’s “Only God Was Above Us,” Reviewed

For a while, in the late two-thousands, it was extremely fun to dunk on Vampire Weekend. Formed at Columbia University in 2006, the band made perky, bleating indie rock about Cape Cod, mansard roofs, and Oxford commas. The singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig wore khakis and sometimes loosely knotted a sweater around his shoulders, a look that everyone knows is the unofficial uniform of rich, scummy boyfriends in high-school movies. The band’s vibe was preppy but lightly debauched, somewhere between “Dead Poets Society” and “Less Than Zero.” Vampire Weekend felt slightly out of step with the arch, fuzzy, forward-thinking indie rock of the time. Its music was polished and sunny, a little cocky, with melodic sensibilities indebted to the dynamic, sensitive songs and songwriters of the seventies and eighties: the Beat’s “Save It for Later,” Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies,” Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.”

The band’s second album, “Contra,” released in 2010, débuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The songs were idiosyncratic but had shockingly broad appeal. That winter, the single “Holiday,” a reggae-inflected rock track that, for better or worse, could have been airlifted from a third-wave ska compilation, appeared in two major television commercials at the same time. More albums followed—“Modern Vampires of the City,” in 2013, and “Father of the Bride,” in 2019.

Koenig’s voice is high, clear, and mannered, but there’s something unusually intimate about his phrasing and delivery. It always sounds, to me, as if he’s both close and far away, maybe on the other end of a phone, shouting across some vast distance. He has a few recurring lyrical motifs, one of which is a vague religiosity—a deep and persistent curiosity about faith and the divine. In this way, Koenig most resembles Simon, whose music—including its deft (if ballsy) adoption of polyrhythms from sub-Saharan Africa—has always been a major touchstone for the band. Like Simon, Koenig grew up around New York City and was raised Jewish. On “Unbelievers,” a song from “Modern Vampires of the City,” Koenig wonders about salvation, forgiveness, baptism: “But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?” That question—could he willingly submit to a sublime force, be it God’s love, romantic love, or anything that requires untold devotion?—comes up again and again in Vampire Weekend’s discography. On “Everlasting Arms,” Koenig asks, “Could I be made to serve a master? / Well, I’m never gonna understand, never understand.” Another of Koenig’s lyrical preoccupations—surely not unrelated—is the unstoppable trudge of time. (Koenig co-hosts an online radio show titled “Time Crisis.”) On “Step,” also from “Modern Vampires,” he worries about man’s inevitable trajectory: “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth.” What if at the end of all this there is simply more unknowing? “Age is an honor, it’s still not the truth,” Koenig adds.

This month, Vampire Weekend will release “Only God Was Above Us,” its fifth album. The band’s current lineup includes Koenig, the drummer Chris Tomson, and the bassist Chris Baio. (In 2016, the visionary multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij announced that he had left the group, on amicable terms; he is credited as a co-writer and a co-producer on “The Surfer,” a gorgeous, spacey new song.) Vampire Weekend has never made a bad album, but “Only God Was Above Us” is one of its best. The songwriting is less compact and urgent, and the sound is looser, hazier, more free. Koenig will turn forty this month. We all soften and uncoil, in different ways, in middle age.

I can’t stop hearing the lyrics of “Only God Was Above Us” as a treatise on inheritance, decay, generational dissonance, and the delicate idea of choosing optimism over defeatist grousing. We have to reckon with the past: the cascading spiritual fallout of our ancestors’ wars. We have to reckon with the present: the ghastliness of our current wars. But there’s also a way to understand violence and struggle as inherent to the human journey—a challenge we have survived countless times (though not without sustaining wounds). The album opens with Koenig singing, “Fuck the world,” his voice soft, almost trembling. But it turns out that he’s merely quoting someone who’s got himself mired in a self-fulfilling fear spiral. That song, “Ice Cream Piano” (on the lyric sheet, the titular phrase appears as “In dreams, I scream piano”), is noisy but buoyant. “We’re all the sons and daughters / Of vampires who drained the Old World’s necks,” Koenig, a descendant of Romanian and Hungarian immigrants, sings.

Koenig is a meticulous lyricist, not one of those say-any-old-thing types. He favors harsh, distinctive nouns (horchata, balaclava, pincher crabs, aranciata, Masada—and that’s just on one song, “Horchata,” off “Contra”), and he often has to do some major syllabic gymnastics to make the rhythm work, like in this part of “Ice Cream Piano”: “You talk of Serbians / Whisper Kosovar Albanians / The boy’s Romanian / Third-generation Transylvanian.” He seems to be suggesting, albeit gently, that it’s advisable to expand our historical understanding of conflict—that no bloodline is innocent, that righteousness is never totally earned, that war is constant. “Each generation makes its own apology,” he trills, on the chorus of “Gen-X Cops,” a whirling song built around a distorted slide-guitar riff that sounds buggy and possessed, like an insect careening around a porch light at dusk.

“Only God Was Above Us” is rife with semi-arcane references: “Gen-X Cops” is named after a Japanese action movie released in 1999, the cover of which will be familiar to anyone who haunted downtown video stores before the advent of streaming. Another song takes its name from a New York magazine cover story from 1996, titled “Prep-School Gangsters,” in which the journalist Nancy Jo Sales bums around Manhattan with a crew of trust-fund dirtbags. On “The Surfer,” Koenig refers to the construction of Water Tunnel No. 3, a New York City water-supply tunnel that broke ground in 1970 and will be completed, it’s estimated, in 2032. (It was once touted as “the greatest nondefense construction project in the history of Western Civilization.”)

My favorite track on the new record is “Capricorn,” a big, hazy tune featuring a swell of synthesizers, piano, guitar, harmonica, and strings. Could just be because I’m a Capricorn myself—“Takes a while to warm up to people,” “Motivated by duty,” “Full-grown adult since age six,” according to the astrology app Co-Star—but I found the song’s final verse almost unbearably romantic. What’s kinder than telling someone they don’t have to work so hard? “Good days are comin’ / Not just to die / I know you’re tired of tryin’ / Listen, baby, / You don’t have to try.”

The album ends with an eight-minute song called “Hope,” of course. It inventories various wrongs an individual or a society can endure, then suggests that we’d better find a way to let our rage evanesce. It’s a notion—surrender—that has come up for Koenig before. On “Ya Hey,” a song from “Modern Vampires,” Koenig sings, “And I can’t help but feel / That I made some mistake / But I let it go.” During the chorus, he wails, “Ut Deo, Deo,” a Latin phrase meaning “To God, God.” (The song’s title feels like a reference both to OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and to Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, marking perhaps the first and last time those things were so explicitly combined.) On “Hope,” Koenig returns to the idea of submission. “My enemy’s invincible / I’ve had to let it go,” he sings. You can nearly hear the shrug. Control is a fiction. Justice might be, too. Or, as Koenig puts it, “The signatories broke the pact / The surfer sacked the quarterback / Your bag fell down onto the tracks / I hope you let it go.” ♦

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