Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Vampire Weekend pushes pop's boundaries with ambitious third LP

Is there any frontman more astute at dealing with the fickleness of the indie blogosphere than Ezra Koenig? Rather than ride trends like so many other bands, the songwriting core of New York indie pop superstars Vampire Weekend filter out the excess background noise and have easily turned out the biggest artistic leap forward in their career.

Though their first two records were both standout, Modern Vampires of the City is more ambitious and forward thinking than anything in their career. It finds Koenig musing on heavy topics, ranging from religion and God to death, society, and history. Meanwhile, the sonic landscape has been altered and bears little in common with the afropop/Paul Simon aesthetic that dotted the first two albums. Rather, Modern Vampires of the City pulls from a diverse array of sounds and influences to weave together something that sounds familiar, but the presentation is fresh and unique.

Death is a continual theme explored on the record; "Unbelievers" tackles the topic of heretics burned at the stake, "Everlasting Arms" paints the scene of a couple's final embrace before a dramatic death, while lead single "Diane Young" was originally slated to be titled "Dying Young,"  but was shifted into a homonym in an attempt to lighten its mood.

Aesthetic wise, Vampire Weekend continue to focus on crafting catchy pop music while creating a constantly shifting and continually evolving palette of influences to back it up. There is a running theme of soul/gospel overtones that dot the album's landscape, beginning with the vocal arrangements of Koenig and his background singers on album opener "Obvious Bicycle." "Ya Hey" the most striking example of this, however. It contains imagery ranging from God to the motherlands of Israel, and features Ezra being backed up by a holy aria of gospel singers, while singing in what sounds like language pulled straight out of the Bible. 

Along the way there are some rapid fire tracks backed up with spoken word sections (Finger Back), some yearning ballads (Hannah Hunt), some occasional electro buzz, and even historical musings. "Step" references the splendor of Angkor Wat and Dar es Salam, while the haunting "Hudson" details the death of Henry Hudson. Gurgling and bubbling synthesizers in the background seek to emulate the tide of the Hudson Bay where Henry vanished.

This album represents the biggest development of the band's sound to date, and in fact one of the biggest breakthroughs for virtually any band in recent memory. The amount of different effects they come up with is staggering; just to come up with the idea to put some of this stuff in is more than what would occur to many bands, but to mix it together and make it all work is nothing short of astounding. Even more so when you consider that there really isn't a weak track in the bunch. Pop music is often viewed as lacking substance or even considered disposable, yet albums like Modern Vampires of the City, along with Justin Timberlake's recently released The 20/20 Experience, are proving that pop can be a complex organism, and a legitimate art form in and of itself.

That isn't to say that this is a perfect album. Koening's insistence on belaboring the point about death and spirituality can be overwrought and heavy handed at times, and the result is Vampire Weekend's attempt to forge their masterpiece sometimes seems less than effortless. It certainly doesn't match up to their self titled in terms of sheer joy and fun factor. Which means that the debate over whether this is their best album is not so clear cut as it may seem, even if it is their most advanced work.

Yet at the end of the day, there's a lot to dissect here, which is not common for a predominately pop based album. Among an ever shifting collage of sound and mood, historical figures from the past resurrect themselves, while Koenig takes sober glimpses into the possible, if not likely future of our generation. It's not hard to tell you're in the presence of a band operating on a another level, surely inspired by some higher power.

Score: 90/100

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