The third album is the one where a band is supposed to make its big jump, but Vampire Weekend got a bit ahead of themselves. After the buzz-band hyperbole of their self-titled 2008 debut album, they came back two years later with Contra, a stunning, self-assured leap in terms of both depth and innovation.
So where do they go from that peak? On their newest, the cheekily named Modern Vampires Of The City, they respond by raising the stakes and their ambition. The band is calling the album the culmination of a trilogy, and there is a continuum which can be followed. Their self-aware, affluent, globetrotting characters partied on the beach well into the night on the first album, were hung over in the unforgiving sunlight on the second, and, on this disc, are suddenly aware of the encroaching world and their tenuous position in it.
The music is perfectly attuned to the plight of those characters, at times woozy and mournful, at times in a frenetic sprint. The drums of Chris Tomson are made to sound like slamming car doors throughout the album, jarring contrasts to the melodic touches brought to the table by multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmangli.
Co-producers Batmangli and Ariel Rechtsheid throw a little bit of everything at these songs, from chanting choirs to lush strings to odd vocal effects, but they leave enough open spaces for lead singer Ezra Koenig to weave his way. Koenig continues to impress as a lyricist. Where he once came off as a wordsmith more clever than profound, he has found in the last two albums surprising pockets of emotion within his flawed yet sympathetic characters.
Time’s smothering nature is a big topic for Koenig here. On “Don’t Lie” he sings, “I want to know does it bother you/The low click of a ticking clock.” The pressure builds to unbearable levels on “Everlasting Arms” as the protagonist imagines himself trapped under a chandelier, an example of opulence doing more harm than good (and perhaps a witty reference to the album cover of the group’s debut album.) A need to escape permeates the adrenaline rush of “Unbelievers,” but even this is just a figurative victory: “Girl you and I will die unbelievers/Bound by the tracks of the train.”
VW can caress a ballad like “Hannah Hunt,” a haunted short story of lovers crossing the country but failing to outrun their problems, but they also can take on a complex beast like “Step,” which mixes hip-hop beats and Victorian strings into something compellingly original. Only in the album’s second half do some of the ideas start to clash instead of mesh, but, by then, you’ll be too buzzed to nitpick.
Modern Vampires Of The City ends with the quiet piano murmur of “Young Lion,” where the only lyrics, sung in tender harmonies by the band, are “You take your time/Young lion.” Those lines wish a well-earned breather for the amalgamation of Koenig’s characters and provide a pitch-perfect epilogue for the trilogy. It’s time to start thinking of Vampire Weekend not as upstarts but as one of the world’s best bands, because they’ve delivered a trio of great albums in an era when diminished expectations leave most listeners grateful for one.