I’m a skeptical person by nature. My working theory about my enjoyment of Things in General is that if I like something the first time around, it’s entertainment. If I like something the second time around, it’s art.
This is an approximation, of course. It took me at least 80 plays to get over Owl City’s “Strawberry Avalanche” and three tries to get really into integration by parts. But my relationship with Vampire Weekend can be grouped into two separate experiences, so I think it fits nicely into my theory. Let’s call these experiences the First and Second Times Around, respectively.
During the First Time Around, I’d looked up a few VW songs on Youtube because I knew they were a critically-acclaimed Hipster Band, and had been told that I should check them out. Whether it was because I couldn’t get past the fact that they actually put the word “vampire” in the title of their band or because I couldn’t really jam to their songs, I didn’t click with Vampire Weekend. Thus, I abandoned them in favor such other hipster-cred-conferring institutions as Animal Collective and Neutral Milk Hotel.
The Second Time Around started this summer, when I ended up driving alone a lot. I drive back and forth to my barn 6 days a week to ride my horse, 40 minutes each way. As you can imagine, I have a lot of time to surf radio stations, sing badly, and ponder the mysteries of the universe.
To make a long story short, I skeptically, then immediately, fell in love with “Step.” Suffice it to say that doing so took me at least two times around. First of all, it’s fun to drive to because it’s smooth and has a great beat and articulate lyrics. I even run to it sometimes. But what I love even more about it is that it’s layered. There are smart cultural references throughout (“Your girl was in Berkeley with her Communist reader;” “She’s richer than Croesus, she’s tougher than leather”) and creative, elegant turns of phrase that weave together a story of the passage of time, an odd match, and the tension between having lived more of your life and having less of it left to live.
These, in essence, are the central themes of “Modern Vampires of the City,” an album so complexly and uniquely constructed that I could never do it justice in a simple blog post. Especially since I’m not a musician; rather, I’m a reader. I like literature a lot and I read this album as I would a book. But, of course, since I’m so in love with the album, I can’t resist gushing about a few of my favorite songs, lines, and quirks from it.
“Obvious Bicycle” opens the album and immediately introduces several themes simultaneously. Like any good work of literature, it took me a few listens to figure out what Ezra Koenig was on about. First of all, the driving force behind percussion section isn’t a drum or a cymbal or a cowbell. Instead, it’s the two-part tick of a grand, antique clock. The more I listen to the song, the more each beat sneaks up on me, fractions of a second before I’m ready for it.
And then come the lyrics, elegant and insightful, simultaneously upbeat and dark. Koenig advises an ambiguous second person that “you ought to spare your face the razor/because no one’s gonna spare the time for you,” a jaded reflection on being an adult in a world where it isn’t anyone’s job to make you feel special or to turn back time for you, to trade your wisdom for youth (this double-edged sword of a line links seamlessly into “Step”’s “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth”). Later on, after imploring you to “Listen…/Don’t wait,” our narrator asks us “Why don’t you spare the world a traitor/take your wager back and leave before you lose.” We find ourselves questioning why we don’t just retract our dreams in a world that feels indifferent toward us, one where it feels impossible to do good. It’s only in listening, really, that we can find the saving graces behind what could easily come across as nihilism. Life, like listening to this album, deserves a second look.
While I really enjoy and appreciate every song on the album, I’m most enchanted by “Hannah Hunt.” Koenig’s ethereal voice and layered lyrics drive the first half of the song. The gardener who tells him “some plants move” defines the song as something of a magical realism, a trend maintained by subtle spiritual/mythological references. In a classic American search for meaning and new beginnings in the romantic West, the couple sees “crawling vines and weeping willows,” symbols of decay and the inevitable passage of time, as they make their way “from Providence to Phoenix.” This second line gives us a curious contrast if we read the words in theological, rather than geographical, terms. The narrators, then, abandon belief in being “saved” or “redeemed” in the New England Puritan tradition in favor of the fantastical, dramatic concept of rebirth.
The two arrive on the west coast only to regret leaving their immobilized past behind; Hannah misses “those frozen beaches” and the narrator walks into town “to buy some kindling for the fire.” This, again, is a multilayered lyric: he seeks to rekindle a spark with Hannah; he wants a source of comfort as they reconcile the chills of past and future; and he needs to burn the bridges that connect him to a past which, as everyone who read Gatsby in high school English can tell you, you can’t repeat.
The drop in the middle of “Hannah” parallels the narrator’s wish to move on, to light a fire under himself and the girl he loves, to burn a toxic bridge. At the same time, he breaks through the front of the first half’s shyly narrated travel journal and confronts his frustration. “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah/there’s no future, there’s no answer” is a raw, wrenching punchline to an artful work of literature: there is no more new frontier, neither here nor to the west. We have got to make it here; we need to listen, as we learned from “Obvious Bicycle,” to reconcile our yearning for the future with our dread of the growing mass of time we perceive as “past.” The yearning and the dread both take human forms in “Hannah” and must learn to trust in their own abilities to “tear the New York Times up into pieces” and cope with what they cannot control. They must create for themselves their future and their answer.
I really could go on for eons about all the details of every single song on this album; I’m just grazing the surface here. So what about this album is so special to me? Even beyond the lyrics that balance deeply personal sentiments with insightful observations about human nature, far past the sing-along bounce of “Step” and “Diane Young,” lies a simple message: it doesn’t all have to make sense. As someone who’s dealt with her fair share of existential crises, relationship drama, and musings about picking up and starting over somewhere else, I find comfort between the lines of what’s certainly my favorite album since American Idiot. Modern Vampires of the City is a dark album, to be sure, but it is overlaid with a pervasive sense of hope. Hope for humans? Maybe not. Hope for humanity? Certainly.
Until next time,