Vampire Weekend revisit old lyrics in new indie masterpiece that is as groovy as it is political
The NYC indie darlings rework an old line from one of their songs to produce one of the catchiest tunes of the year for their forthcoming album 'Father of the Bride'
Through all of 2018, the buzz around the highly anticipated new Vampire Weekend album was steadily swelling. It had been a harrowing five years since the New York indie-pop icons had dropped their last album, the brilliant 'Modern Vampires of the City', which was Vampire Weekend's second consecutive No. 1 album in the US charts.
While fans grew impatient and speculations around the new album heightened, the band itself kept feeding fans with little tidbits of information and teasers as they toured heavily throughout the year. In May, Frontman Exra Koenig proclaimed with half-joking accuracy that their new album was “94.5%” complete.
During their Lollapalooza Chicago gig in August, Koenig revealed that the recording process was complete and that it was in the mastering stage. The working title of the album was revealed to be 'Mitsubishi Macchiato' and Koenig admitted that the album was heavily influenced by Kacey Musgraves' recent body of work.
A lot had changed since 'Modern Vampires of the City'. Original member and frequent producer Rostam Batmanglij had split from the band (amicably) to start his own solo career under the moniker 'Rostam'. But much to fans' delight, the band confirmed that Batmanglij had contributed to the album.
For their live shows, the core trio of Koenig, bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson has been augmented by Greta Morgan on keyboards, guitar and backing vocals, Brian Robert Jones on guitar, Garrett Ray on additional percussion, and Will Canzoneri on keyboards and vocals. During the afterparty of the Chicago Lollapalooza gig late last year, Koenig showcased five demos from the album. Although no cellphones were allowed inside, a few lucky fans got an early feeler of what was to come.
In spite of all the buzz, the majority of fans never got to listen to a single peep from the album. That changed early in 2019 as Vampire Weekend finally unveiled two new singles.
Titled 'Harmony Hall' and '2021', the songs were the first taste of the forthcoming album. '2021' is a short, stripped-back, minimalist track that spanned all of two-and-a-half minutes. With a slower tempo than one expects from the indie rockers, the song is centered around a simple synth arrangement, peppered with twangy acoustic guitars and features vocals from Jenny Lewis, while sampling Japanese music icon Haruomi Hosono.
The real show stopper was the lead single 'Harmony Hall'. Constructed intricately around melodic acoustic guitars, the track shows off the African influenced percussion reminiscent of the classic Vampire Weekend sound. But keen fans will notice something in the song that will take them back to 'Modern Vampires of the City'. The chorus of 'Harmony Hall' sees Ezra Koenig croon a catchy aphorism. "I don't want to live like this, but I don't wanna die," he sings.
If that line sounds familiar, it's for good reason. The very same line featured not-so-prominently on the track 'Finger Back' from their previous album. The track wasn't a particularly popular album highlight (compared to the likes of 'Diane Young' and 'Ya Hey'). The band didn't even play it live too many times. 'Finger Back' has a catchy, up-tempo riff that makes up for the barely discernible masochistic lyrics ("Bend my finger back (snap) / Wrap it in a paper towel / Break a twig in half and set it straight").
But it's not unusual for Vampire Weekend to indulge in lyrics that seem absurd, often juxtaposing vivid imageries and phrases together just for the sound-sex of it all (take the half-gibberish verses on 'California English' for instance). The refrain at the very end of the song, though, in stark contrast to the rest of the hurried lyricism, rang out loud and clear: "I don't want to live like this, but I don't want to die."
On 'Harmony Hall', Vampire Weekend take the old wine and put it in a new bottle — they change the context and politicize the catchy phrase. The chorus which the line is a part of is apt imagery for the fractured political landscape of today, blurred by lies, deceit and polarization. "And the stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness / Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified," Koenig sings before adding the final touch with "I don't wanna live like this, but I don't wanna die."
It's a line that captures the essence of the state of affairs today. Through history, the present time is undoubtedly the best time be alive. We are at the forefront of scientific discovery, space exploration and artificial intelligence. Yet, at the same time, we're polluting the planet at a rate never seen before in history and the era of globalization is slowly fading as countries shut their gates to each other. Indie rockers Superchunk summed up the dissonance of living in such a time tactfully in their 2018 album 'What A Time To Be Alive'. Vampire Weekend has captured it again in just the chorus of a song. It's powerful stuff. And also perfect for a terribly catchy singalong at live performances.
If 'Harmony Hall' is supposed to be a sign of what's to come from the new album, fans are in for a delight. The new acoustic-leaning sound and lyrical imagery shows a new side of Vampire Weekend that will be interesting to explore. Meanwhile, the band has also released more details about the new album.
The working title 'Mitsubishi Macchiato' has been done away with for the official title 'Father of the Bride'. An official release date has been set for May 3. Interestingly, the album is set to be a double LP and spans 18 tracks, which probably explains why Vampire Weekend is releasing singles in pairs of two. The latest in the series are 'Sunflower' and 'Big Blue'. 'Sunflower' features additional contributions from The Internet's Steve Lacy, and is accompanied by a music video directed by Jonah Hill.
While we've had the chance to listen to four out of the total 18 songs on the tracklist, three of them have hovered around the two-minute mark and have given very little away as to what most of the album will comprise. 'Harmony Hall' is the longest and most intricately laid out song out of the singles so far. The rest of the tracklist and the total length of the album still remains a mystery. More singles should follow soon and it sure will be interesting to see what else Vampire Weekend have tucked away in their sleeves.
'Father of the Bride' arrives May 3 via Columbia.