There was a time that Vampire Weekend perched, perilously, on the precipice of being one of the great one-album wonders of the ’00s. Like Cannibal Ox or At the Drive-In or Bloc Party before them, the Ivy League pop-rockers seemed poised to turn heads with one masterstroke of a record, and then retreat into either obscurity, oddity, or simple irrelevance. That album was 2008’s Vampire Weekend — the one with “Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk” and basically all the Vampire Weekend songs you know — and the backlash began almost immediately, snarky bloggers and comment-section vultures finding their Afro-pop influences tiresome, their pop-culture references overly precious, their sound derivative and cloying. (These people are what we in the industry refer to as “wrong”. See also: “incorrect”.) Five years later, VW’s Modern Vampires of the City attempts valiantly to be the crown jewel in the band’s discography — and if it isn’t quite as lightning-in-a-bottle perfect as the debut, it’s in the discussion.
What isn’t in discussion is Vampire Weekend’s second record, Contra. It’s not that it’s a bad album; it’s simply not great enough to vie for the title. And yet, its influence — slightly darker in sound, a bit more stoic — creeps into Modern Vampires of the City. In a way, the new album almost sounds like a synthesis of the two previous ones: it’s Contra‘s comparatively sedate, chilled vibe creeping into Vampire Weekend‘s pogo-ing, summah-time cheek.
What follows is the most interesting album of Vampire Weekend’s career; where the debut is a sugar rush that trips the pleasure centers, Modern Vampires is a lot more deliberate, and works as a shifting cycle of interconnected songs (or, you know, an album) more than it does a collection of individual peaks and valleys. (The debut almost sounds like a greatest-hits album; certainly, the amount of catchy shoveled into that record is staggering.) And yet, it’s not merely a mood record — it’s cohesive, sure, and at times moody, but it boasts some of the most assured, interesting moments they’ve ever put on wax. “Diane Young” functions as a kinkier “A-Punk”, pitch-shifted and giddy but a little more skeletal; “Don’t Lie” introduces “M79″‘s layers of synths and harpsichords to another stately pop composition, and it works like gangbusters; “Ya Hey” and “Step”, even with their weirdo flourishes (strange, high-pitched yawps and briefly chopped-and-screwed vocals, respectively), are among the most addictive and melodically interesting songs this quartet has ever touched. In that sense, Modern Vampires, rife with texture and the thrill of discovery, is its own brand of giddy new thrill.
Except there are new wrinkles here and there. Particularly at album’s end, where Modern Vampires seems to ape the experience of stumbling through an empty city street at 3a.m.; “Hudson”, with its pompous minor chords and foreboding cathedral organs, seems to confirm this Jack-the-Ripper-esque notion, while clipped closer “Young Lion” sounds more like Bon Iver, a more genteel and soothing proposition.
All told, it’s uniquely Vampire Weekend; the familiar quirks are there, but Modern Vampires represents a melodic evolution, a sophisticated new wrinkle to explore, and the continuing artistic viability of a band that seems in no danger of falling into the abyss.