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Vampire Weekend at Their Most Serious and Least Fun

The youthful mischief, the pangs of heartbreak that punctuated them, they're only memories here.

(Vampire Weekend / Columbia Records)

Is this how New York looks from Los Angeles? Though Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig has lived on the West Coast for over a decade now, in an interview with the Jokermen podcast, he described the group's latest album, "Only God Was Above Us," as a New York album. 

In the group's performance of the single "Mary Boone" (named after the celebrity art collector and later convicted tax fraud) on "The Daily Show," archival footage of a gray, washed-out Uptown Manhattan is projected behind an ensemble that includes Koenig, seated on a stool; drummer Chris Thomson; a double bassist; Chris Baio, who normally plays electric bass, on piano; and the longtime producer of Vampire Weekend records Ariel Reichstadt on a DJ controller and MPC sampler. Accompanying these images, which seem of a piece with the album's cover (a photograph by Steven Siegel depicting a grimy 1980s subway car), is the group's most dour music yet, staid compositions that set sentiments of ennui to wintry sonics. 

"We're all the sons and daughters of the vampires who drained the old world’s necks," on the album opener "Ice Cream Piano," is, sure, as good a summation as you could imagine for "the whole Vampire Weekend thing," their keenness for absurd scenes that encapsulate the historical and cultural car crash New Yorkers find ourselves in regularly, if we notice: burning Saabs, a coal scion lying about their family's reserves, all observed with a chuckling ambivalence—"why would you lie about something dumb like that?" 

It may be rare, but cocksure youth can sometimes stumble upon meaning more easily than middle-aged grasps at profundity.

Because when did it all get so direct? So…pathetic? As the group has moved out of the city, their subject matter has become loftier: The cheeky observations of New York's anxieties of manners, our characters and the oldness and the newness of our money, have receded, along with the irreverent poppiness of the sound that accompanied them. Their 2019 release "Father of the Bride" at least foiled efforts at grand observations on politics and society with a kooky, Phish-y sound. But what's left on "Only God Was Above Us" is dystopian, a New York where "the temple's gone, but still a single column stands today," as Koenig laments on "Classical," a place where the spirit goes to die, a place to mature into a pose of submission to futility.

The youthful mischief, the pangs of heartbreak that punctuated them, they're only memories here. "Connect" references "Mansard Roof," the opening song from Vampire Weekend's self-titled first album, whose protagonist, in the band's introduction to the world, gazed at a country house from a street that stunk of hot garbage. Koenig's frictionless squawk, and his affinity for cute rhymes and baroque chord progressions, feel somewhat less appropriate for the big swings at stately, lasting songwriting that "Only God Was Above Us" tends to prefer. The morose flailing manages to feel less necessary for Our Historical Moment than LP1 Koenig's arch sentimentality as captured in "Mansard Roof's" languid lyrics and plush guitar leads. On "Connect," with its mournful ruminations on lack of connection, Vampire Weekend seems to have curdled into something less interesting. And certainly less charming. 

"Our enemy’s invincible," Koenig croons in the album’s final moments, the closer "Hope."  "I hope you let it go." On Jokermen, Koenig noted that he didn't want the album's message to be one that whined about life aboard a society that's a sinking ship, telling the hosts, "As an American, I didn't want the song to be on some, here I am in a dying empire just sitting around and everything sucks." Instead, the song lands on what I suppose is an attempt at coming to terms with reality, but sounds more like…a shrug? A smirk? Whatever it is, it doesn't look good on him.

Along the way to these solemn pronouncements, the band unsurprisingly loses its groove. They don't sound like much of a band at all. Reichstadt's assemblages of rattly boom bap drum breaks, and icy pianos—on these anthems for approaching middle age, wallowing in spiritual inertia with a fat savings account, whatever assets you can scrounge, some cash to spend and your best days behind you—just don't coalesce into anything lively. In their interview with the New York Times's Jon Pareles, Vampire Weekend revealed to the writer that on the cutting room floor for "Only God Was Above Us" is material from sessions where the band all got together in LA and just played together, hundreds of hours of it. Baio told Pareles, "It felt like being at the outset of the band again," and that they're considering performing that material in "a new trio that happens to have the same members as Vampire Weekend." Maybe it's time to hear what those guys have to say.

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