After The Facts Reviews are detailed album reviews set two or three months after an album release. The purpose of these are to let the hype around the project settle before critically analyzing the work. Even the most cautious observers can get caught up in the excitement of a new release.
As album opener “Obvious Bicycle” buzzes softly in the background while I write this, I can smell the dew in Central Park, hear a train roaring in the distance, and see the dense layer of fog ruminating above New York City just like the album cover suggests. Let me prelude this review with saying Modern Vampires of the City represents “The City That Never Sleeps” in the same way Woody Allen movies of the late ’70s paid homage to the great metropolis. In a swift, 43-minute motion it soars as big as a picturesque odyssey of a lifetime in the city and as small as a simple morning in a New York café sometime in the past–both focusing on the setting’s most intimate and immediate details. It is cinematic in that there are characters, questions, and an ever present setting (which could be argued is a character). It is Vampire Weekend’s best album to date because in places where the Vampires of old would hide their New York roots in pseudo-African, peppy rock songs, these Modern Vampires step out from the shadows to deliver confident and mature anecdotes that utilize both new and old songwriting techniques. After a long-winded yet apparently crucial hiatus, the four guys from the Big Apple were able to mature into people comfortable with embracing but still questioning their ever changing identity. So naturally, these are the topics discussed on the album: the importance and restlessness of time and the introspective bravery of self-realization and spiritual questioning.
Time is one of the most depressing constants in life. From my youthful understanding when you grow past your mid-twenties, a change occurs. You start thinking that, merely from a logical standpoint, you have lived your best years. Time has eluded you, and now instead of being a quirky, adorably lost 23-year-old, you’re a grizzled 28-year-old with no real future. People start to look at you differently. As daylight breaks on “Obvious Bicycle,” the lyrics get grim: “Oh you ought to spare your face the razor, because no one’s gonna spare their time for you.” Well, that’s sad, yes, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the album illustrating the loss of innocence and lack of optimism in this all-important third full-length album. On “Step” lead singer Ezra Koenig declares, “Wisdom’s a gift, but I’d trade it for youth, age is an honor – it’s still not the truth.” Please remember these are the same Ivy League kids who made the relentlessly happy-go-lucky pop track “A-Punk” half a decade ago. I hope I’m not becoming redundant in saying this is post-college music. This is respect-your-elders-but-secretly-don’t-want-to-be-them music. “Nobody knows what the future holds, and it’s bad enough just getting old,” Ezra shouts on the ironically old-fashioned ‘50s-inspired track “Diane Young.” This is Vampire Weekend’s third album in five years–but is that enough? Have they followed their plan and reached their potential? Now, I realize the band is not always talking about themselves, but through the cloud of metaphors, I can guaranteed a majority of what Ezra is discussing is his real life issues. On “Don’t Lie” he sings, “The low click of a ticking clock, there’s a lifetime right in front of you, and everyone I know.” So yeah, maybe he is acknowledging former Columbia classmates’ struggle to find success and maybe he is singing to old college girlfriends and acquaintances. Dude, I don’t know–ask him on Twitter.
“Hannah Hunt” is the most blatant allusion to time and in my opinion is the album’s centerpiece. When Ezra sings, “Our days were long our nights no longer, count the seconds, watching hours, though we live on the US dollar, you and me, we got our own sense of time,” I cannot help but imagine a past relationship where his girlfriend and him are drinking wine on their apartment roof one night and plannning out their entire lives together. The way Ezra writes is inherently open to interpretation, but I think “Hannah Hunt” is about a guy and an ex-girlfriend finding success at different times in different ways. It is about that phone call (or now maybe Facebook message) after many years apart and them noticing how compatible they still are and how they have not changed that much despite their polar opposite lifestyles and careers. It is a sort of timeless, unrequited love story that makes them question whether they should have separated in the first place. “You and me, we got our own sense of time” literally sounds like a closing line in the final monologue of the Nic Cage-Téa Leoni romantic comedy The Family Man. Sorry if you don’t get that reference.
MVOTC is perfect morning music, but it is more complicated than that. It has to be, right? Music is about sounds and words coming together to create a feeling. But gosh, that feeling cannot be expressed in just one or two words. Similarly, life is more complicated than just breathing a bunch and then dying forever. Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls on which Ezra Koenig coincidentally made a cameo in last fall raises similar questions. Both the show and this album hone in on the lives of 21st century 20-somethings trying desperately to transition into adulthood–but to what avail? They fuck and complain and then whine and then stop believing in God and start believing in “art” and then start believing in God again but only because of “art” and then ask their parents for money and then do cocaine and dance half naked to Icona Pop. And as confused as that sounds, the Modern Vampires clear things up with the most precise questions about our muddled, inane existence. On “Ya Hey” Ezra asks, “Through the fire and through the flames, you won’t even say your name, only ‘I am that I am,’ but who could ever live that way?” which loosely translates to “If there is a God, how can he let bad stuff happen without doing anything about it?” It is a common question for anyone who has ever lost faith in the existence of a higher being. On “Everlasting Arms” Koenig says about God, “I took your counsel and came to ruin, leave me to myself, lead me to myself, oh I was made to live without you, but I’m never gonna understand, never understand.” This is another common question about faith, especially the contradictory request “leave me to myself, lead me to myself.” On this song Ezra is also expressing the frustration of God creating man to live without Him. He continues to ask: if there is a God, where is he? It is such a basic and profound concept. Like damn, Ezra, this some real shit (I’m so sorry).
I’m not going to spend this last paragraph summarizing what I just said. This is not AP Lit, just like MVOTC is not the college dissertation some weirdos have grown to expect from Vampire Weekend. Instead, this is an album damning the constant progression of time and weighing the omnipresence vs. lack of presence of a true deity. It is intelligent like the band’s previous two releases but differs in its candor and immediate truths. Ultimately, it is a reflective compilation of past thoughts and ideas and questions gathered after a three year hiatus. You can dig deep into it and take it very seriously (like I did) or just casually listen to it and accept that its closing track “Young Lion” contains six words that were apparently a direct quote from “an older rasta at Dunkin’ Donuts” that Ezra met in 2009. Just understand that MVOTC is a bravely executed, smartly written, dense, and structurally complex piece of work. Sonically, it brings the ‘60s into the new millenium with autotune and motherfucking reverb. It very much represents the artists who made it and the city they came from. Now, shut up. Play “Step” really loud. It’s chilly outside, and it’s during the awkward transition between winter and fall. You don’t really know what to wear, so you dress warm. The city is bustling. You can smell the strange chicken cooking in a nearby street vendor, and you can hear the horns blaring as you put the traffic behind you. You’re walking along the harbor near Brooklyn Bridge and see a girl. Cue the chorus.