Music

Vampire Weekend’s New Album Is Their Least Cool and Maybe Their Best

On Father of the Bride, the indie veterans abandon hipsterism in search of deeper self-reflection.

Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend performs at EartH Hackney on March 21 in London.
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend performs at EartH Hackney on March 21 in London.
Chiaki Nozu/Redferns

What becomes an artist most, when the field in which they blossomed goes fallow around them? Veterans of the mid-2000s “indie rock” boom (reasons for scare quotes here) have been struggling with this problem for years. In an era driven by streaming instead of the influence of music blogs, they’ve been eclipsed by rap and pop, and by a younger, more diverse generation of rock inheritors with other matters on their minds. Now, after a six-year sabbatical (albeit a productive one), Ezra Koenig, always the superego and now essentially sole proprietor of the band Vampire Weekend, has returned with his own solution—starting with perhaps the worst album cover of the year.

While the group’s past albums featured gallery-worthy found photography, Father of the Bride looks like a cartoon-y 1990s eco-benefit concert poster, albeit with the words “SONY MUSIC” garishly stamped under the amateurish graphic of our mother the big blue marble. It’s in keeping with Koenig’s idiosyncratic idea of kitsch, not to mention with a moment when album covers have been reduced to thumbnails on screens, anyway, for everybody but vinyl collectors (an in-crowd Koenig may be happy to troll). But it’s also a consumer advisory: Warning, this album will be uncool. An uncool album, one might say, for an uncool time.

In a sense, Vampire Weekend was never cool. Even in the flush of the fast success the band graduated into directly out of Columbia University, the Village Voice captured a widespread reaction with its early-2008 headline, “Vampire Weekend: Hated On Mostly.” The band’s self-reflexive cosplay as Ivy League grads in Lacoste sweaters and boat shoes who sang about Cape Cod and Oxford commas, but also shouted out Lil Jon, felt like the ultimate outcome of a process by which a subgenre born of the post-punk underground became (or was revealed as) a pastime for collegiate hobbyists. And just in time for the wealth gap to beget the sinkhole of the 2008 financial crisis. That Koenig’s Hamptons-holidaying lyrics were often set to licks and beats directly gleaned from vintage South African, Congolese, and Madagascan pop, as well as via Paul Simon’s Graceland, further set them up for charges of cultural appropriation. They were scourged as the peak of indie whiteness, despite Koenig’s Jewishness and then–co-leader Rostam Batmanglij being the son of Iranian immigrants. (America’s social binaries have trouble computing for well-off nonwhite people.)

But Vampire Weekend’s cultural shoplifting and jarring class juxtapositions were too upfront for theft and inequality not to be, at least partly, what its work was about. The band emerged at a point when previous hierarchies of taste, including rockism, had become outmoded, and any sophisticated music aficionado would profess to cross genres without prejudice (though still selectively, bien sûr). The trouble then is whether the cosmopolitan anti-snob becomes a tourist-consumer laying claim to every kind of cultural expression, regardless of its context and distance from the listener’s own circumstances. The strategies of Vampire Weekend and fellow genre-blending bands of the period like their buddies Dirty Projectors, as David Kenneth Blake wrote in a 2014 musicology thesis on higher education and “elite pop”, reflected “how universities encourage an ethics of criticism as a way to navigate the omnivore’s dilemma.” The New Yorker noted in 2009 that Koenig took Columbia courses such as “Plagiarism, Parody, and Postcolonialism,” as well as “Imperialism and the Cryptographic Imagination,” which could be the subtitles of the first two Vampire Weekend albums.

At the time, it hadn’t been too long since I’d aged out of the alternative-nation demographic myself, a passage that culminated in writing a book that interrogated the social implications of my own tastes. So although I followed these debates, listening to VW’s music often felt too much like regressing back a decade. Their sound of boulevardier revelry, with its hot rhythm section (drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio) and abundant tasty hooks, gave me pause: So this was a party band about grotesque global injustice, then? Also, too many of their lyrics set up 2-D rich girl characters (today’s “basic bitches”) as foils, like a Weezer for dudes who’d taken post-Colonial studies. It seemed to me Vampire Weekend wanted to eat their cultural capital and invest it in a high-yield cultural-capital fund, too. And could Koenig please get that pinched “hey mom, look!” strain out of his voice?

By the time of their third album, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, the band had grown past many of those mannerisms. The indie boom was in terminal condition, too, except at the collegiate-taste game reserves that are summer music festivals. So the album was appropriately elegiac. On “Step,” its best track (and maybe still the group’s finest), Koenig roasted his own cultural scavenger tendencies: “Back, back, way back, I used to front/ Like, ‘Angkor Wat, Mechanicsburg, Anchorage, and Dar es Salaam’/ While home in New York was champagne and disco/ Tapes from L.A.-slash-San Francisco. … I was a hoarder, but, girl, that was back then.” It earned the group critical backpats and a Grammy for Best Alternative Album, while the haters had mostly tuned out. But I thought that outside its primary highlights, the album leaned to the ponderous, offering up a young person’s idea of mature wisdom.

Father of the Bride, by contrast, has the ring of genuine grown-up angst—it opens with a short, sharp sigh as if to say, well, here we go. The album’s whole 58-minute, 18-track run seems concocted to slow down time while asking the listener, So what’s happened to you over the past six years? Lead single “Harmony Hall” reinforces the theme with its opening words, “We took our vows in summertime/ Now we find ourselves in late December.” Such allusions to marriage repeat throughout the album, serving as metaphors for connections and commitments that at once might be personal, political, ecological, and artistic. Koenig crafted the record over several years in partnership with producer Ariel Rechtshaid and a parade of guests (the officially departed Batmanglij only one among them). During that same period, Koenig left New York to settle down and have a child in Los Angeles with actress Rashida Jones (making musical royalty Quincy Jones one “father of the bride,” although the pair aren’t legally wed).

Koenig is well past qualifying as a youthful provocateur. What he can be now is a man in his mid-30s with a “worried mind,” as he sings on “Harmony Hall”—worried about the misalignment between his own comfort and good fortune, and the godawful state of our goofy blue-green globe. The more I listened to Father of the Bride, the more I imagined its subliminal motto being drawn from Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the climactic sequence of Casablanca: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Musically, this means mostly switching up the Paul Simon echoes from the 1980s Afro-groove of Graceland to the midtempo, singer-songwriter 1970s dad rock of, say, Still Crazy After All These Years (which could be a subtitle for this album). The two share not only their eclectic musical touchstones but a kinship between their New Jersey–bred singing voices, their almost-too-clever songwriting (“could have been smart/ we’re just unbearably bright” sings Koenig on the critic-baiting “Unbearably White”), their consistent but faulty liberalism, and their mix of overweening ego and hangdog self-pity. They’d each be easy to dislike if they weren’t so damned gifted.

But the pair’s personae, which place them as outsiders among insiders and as at once hipsters and squares, are also quintessentially New York Jewish, and Koenig’s consciousness of that status is a subcurrent on Father of the Bride. Indeed, his central character in the Netflix series Neo Yokio, though drawn as black and voiced by Jaden Smith, is part of a clan of “magistocrats” who are derided behind their backs by the city’s WASP elites as arrivistes and “rat catchers”—a coding not so difficult to decipher in this era of rising antisemitism. That concern comes up on FotB songs like “Sympathy,” which refers to “Judeo-Christianity” as an artificial construct being weaponized against “a third” (Islam, presumably) by a dubious force seeking “triumph for their will.” It’s even more obvious on “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” with its reference to the 1917 Balfour Declaration that set the trajectory for a Jewish homeland and the singer’s disappointment in the fate of such projects today.

Koenig traverses that axis between the intimate/domestic and the global/cataclysmic in a variety of ways throughout The Father of the Bride.

The dad-rock is partly counterbalanced and cracked open by digital effects, samples, and quotations that destabilize its steady beats—from the sample of the Christian-hymn-singing Solomon Islands choir that repeatedly interrupts “Hold You Now” (taken from the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line, and thus misattributed to composer Hans Zimmer), to the twin collaborations with Steve Lacy of R&B/hip-hop group the Internet, “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon,” that wind the album’s meditative tone around helixes of funk.

The most consequential guest, though, is Danielle Haim from the L.A. sister trio Haim (and also Rechtshaid’s life partner), who’s a featured duet vocalist with Koenig on three songs and a noticeable background presence on several others, such as the standout tracks “This Life” and “Stranger.” Having a woman’s voice so prominent helps correct for the boys-club atmosphere that put me off early Vampire Weekend albums—when Koenig sings about intimate partnerships now, it’s not from a one-sided narcissistic point of view (although his character in the duets is sometimes self-deprecatingly positioned that way, as when he plays a guy trying to break up a wedding by sleeping with the bride the night before on “Hold You Now”).

Judging by message-board chatter on Reddit, Genius, and other fan sites, the Haim duets are also the toughest aspect to accept for many longtime VW fans, though they don’t blame Haim herself so much as the country-music influence on those numbers—the “yeehaw” part, as many of them call it. The duets clearly are meant to mimic classic country duets of the George-and-Tammy, June-and-Johnny variety: The key line on “Married in a Gold Rush,” for instance, matches the “we got married in a fever” cadence from the Carter-Cash standard “Jackson.”

But country is in fact woven much deeper into Father of the Bride than most fans are detecting. For instance, that “worried mind” line from “Harmony Hall” evokes a song of the same name that was covered on Ray Charles’ landmark 1962 crossover album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. It was originally co-written by Jimmie Davis, the “singing governor” of Louisiana in the mid-1940s and early 1960s and also a staunch segregationist. Does Koenig intend all of this history to bubble under the song? It wouldn’t be out of character.

Even on the song with the most overt callback to VW’s African-appropriation roots—“Rich Man” is built around a sample of Sierra Leone musician S.E. Rogie’s 1960s “palm wine” hit “Go Easy With Me”—the lyrics are in dialogue with “A Satisfied Mind,” a 1955 country No. 1 for Porter Wagoner. The Christian-minded song professes “that it’s so hard to find/ One rich man in 10 with a satisfied mind.” Koenig at first tweaks the song’s nose, claiming that of those 10, “I’m the one”—but by the end, he’s turned it around to be about the contemporary proverbial 1 percent or 0.001 percent (surely including the example in the White House), singing, “A billion to one/ Don’t the odds make you sick?/ To be one in a billion’s a terrible trick/ You’re the wretched one.” All the while, Rogie’s deft guitar pattern carries on imperturbably in the background, serving as the song’s bigger-picture conscience.

On the swoony “My Mistake,” Koenig laments in part the loss of “peace in the valley,” using the title of a gospel staple that became an Elvis Presley hit. When he sang it on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, Presley dedicated it to the victims of that year’s Hungarian refugee crisis (some of them Holocaust survivors). And returning to “Married in a Gold Rush,” I couldn’t help hearing in its opening couplet—“Something’s happening in the country/ And the government’s to blame”—an echo of the infamous and troubling scene from Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen’s trickster clown sings to an real-life Arizona country-lounge crowd, “In my country there is problem/ And that problem is the Jew,” soon managing to get most of the room to sing along to the chorus, “Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free!” with a country-and-Western swing you could hear all the way to Jerusalem, New York, or Berlin.

That last one’s probably a stretch. But it would fit the double-sided maneuvering I think Koenig’s up to on Father of the Bride. After years of being accused of appropriating music from other cultures while denying his own white privilege, he’s turned instead to the American music that is most damned for its whiteness. He’s doing this lovingly, for sure—he’s talked about how attending a Kacey Musgraves concert made him want to write songs that were more direct and legible than his style in the past. I think there’s also an element in which as a rock-solid “coastal elite,” he wants to put himself in some kind of dialogue with the parts of America from which he feels estranged. With typical Vampire Weekend sleight of hand, it’s not on “Unbearably White” that he talks back to articles with titles such as “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie”—that track seems to be about anxieties of a much more existential order. Rather, he grapples with questions of whiteness and its discontents and spoils partly through this country undercurrent.

That this discomfits some of his audience should be no surprise, because country is one of the few genres that a lot of supposedly open-eared music fans still permit themselves to be snobbish about, as was evident in a lot of the debate around “Old Town Road.” That’s licensed by country’s associations with racism and reactionary politics, which are certainly real to an extent (however exaggerated by outsiders). But it also permits listeners outside country’s core listenership to disassociate themselves from country’s déclassé uncoolness. In other words, congratulations, there are people you still get to feel better than! The sociological research on “omnivore” tastes, as cited in David Blake’s thesis, confirms that country and metal are the genres most often shut out of that circle of musical acceptance.

I can’t imagine Koenig didn’t anticipate at least some of this reaction, as an artist who never met a challenge that he couldn’t overthink. Many listeners are also going to find the album too long and sprawling, but I think that too is part of this big brew of uncoolness, just like on the cover—not to present us with any kind of well-made, tasteful object. A few critics have compared it with the Beatles’ White Album, in that sense, and that helps me cope with a couple of my own least-favorite tracks, such as “Big Blue” (it’s like one of those fuzzy George Harrison songs that have only decent guitar parts to recommend them) or the worst Haim duet, “We Belong Together” (a lazier exercise in twangy wordplay that I’ll chalk up as FotB’s “Bungalow Bill”).

Otherwise, though, I’m drawn through its extended length by the endless tiny musical details, its rare ability to engage with political crisis with minimal preening or sloganeering, and a feat of self-reinvention, even self-redemption, that doesn’t beg for congratulations. It’s a lesson for any artist fated to be ejected from youth culture, which is pretty much all of them eventually: Abandon the constraints of cool, all ye who enter here, and go ahead and become your younger self’s greatest fear.

Vampire Weekend Father of the Bride CD cover
Sony Music

Father of the Bride

The new album from Vampire Weekend