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Vampire Weekend ‘Father of the Bride’ – Review

11 May

On the cover of ‘Father of the Bride’, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years, the earth is represented as a cartoonish symbol, offset by the striking whiteness of the background and a corporation logo for ‘Sony Music’. There is a song, ‘Unbearably White’, that elaborates on this tussle between nature and the bright, white hum of the digital environment we’ve created. ‘Presented with darkness, we turn to the light’ argues Ezra Koenig. But it’s the blinding light of computer screens, mobile phones and televisions that he’s referring to. In Ezra’s vision, nature will fight back. ‘There’s an avalanche coming…’ The album itself is populated by digital noise, electronic gargles and processing but these sounds are superseded by crickets chirping, frogs ribbeting and birds singing. In the liner notes, Father of the Bride is dedicated to planet earth, and in interviews Ezra has described being nostalgic for a Nineties brand of environmentalism and the Sega Mega Drive game ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. If their last album, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ exuded an anxiety very specific to being in your late 20’s and living in NYC, then ‘Father of the Bride’ is about reengaging with nature, in a way that approximates hope. There is a freedom and relief to this. It’s like the soft exhalation after holding your breath. The smell of wet pavements after a storm.

Both the opening and closing tracks open with Ezra singing ‘I know’, but his wisdom isn’t borne from a knowledge of what is certain; rather an acceptance that some things aren’t, and will never be certain. ‘Father of the Bride’ has a certain calm stoicism that marks it out from its predecessor in a way that is unexpected considering how tightly wound and preoccupied with the passing of time, that album sounded.

It doesn’t start off this way. The record opens with wedding day drama – a bride uncertain of whether to stay or go – and this sense of quandary carries through to ‘Harmony Hall’, which establishes a theme of individuality vs group think. In this vision, the more that people harmonise the less articulate the message becomes. Individuals become lost in the crowd. ‘Wicked snakes’ are revealed. The song’s most memorable line is perhaps the most universal catch-22 of all – ‘I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.’ It’s a call for the freedom and peace that the rest of the album responds to.

This idea is returned to on the album’s pretty closer ‘Jerusalem, New York, Berlin’, where Koenig meditates on another heady concept – heritage. In particular, his heritage as a Jew, raised in New York, living in the shadow of both Berlin and Jerusalem. Like Harmony Hall, It’s loosely about lending your voice to that of the crowd until you eventually lose your sense of individual identity. Sometimes you can surrender yourself to a bigger idea that ultimately can’t save you, whether it’s religion (as represented by Jerusalem), culture (New York) or politics (Berlin): ‘You’ve given me the big dream but you can’t make it real’. It’s a song that acknowledges both dream and disaster and holds them along side each other as colours on the same spectrum. It asks the questions and provides no answers, with an acceptance that maybe there is no answer, just an ‘endless conversation’. On the boyunt ‘Stranger’ he puts it another way – ‘I used to look for an answer, I used to knock on every door / but you’ve got the wave on, music playing, don’t need to look anymore.’

‘Stranger’ is a self-assured riff on maturity. In every sense it exudes a confidence that only comes with experience. If before Vampire Weekend sounded like a band constantly searching for an itch to scratch, then the opposite is true on ‘Father of the Bride’ and its ‘tasteful palette’ of sounds. Warm horns and lush sprinkles of piano tickle the edges of the track and – of everything on the album – ‘Stranger’ in particular lifts the band to a higher level of serenity. The song details a cozy night at home, with Ezra listening to his wife and sister in law having a conversation downstairs. ‘I’ve left those wilding days of old, your house is warmer, the wilderness is cold.’ Some fans might miss the frenzied energy of Vampire Weekend’s early work or the rattling anxiety of ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ but few could argue with the largely content place they’ve now settled in. 

It’s definitely the baggiest they’ve ever sounded. The freshly pressed slacks are splattered with pricks of mud. The crisp, button down Oxford shirt has wrinkled and come untucked. The fringe has fallen below the eyebrows. It’s the sound of a band who are assured enough to allow their rigorous standards to slip ever so slightly but have the confidence to pull it off.

And after six long years away, it’s only fitting that Vampire Weekend return with an ambitious set of eighteen songs. Springsteen’s ‘The River’ has been cited as the model; a double album with a sense of thematic unity and cohesion rather than the sprawling, say yes to every idea approach of ‘The White Album’. Amidst this comfortable confidence is the sense that Vampire Weekend have never tried this hard before. Despite its length and strong sense of adventure, the mix is crisp bright and poppy; Ariel Reichsted is behind the boards, sharpening the hooks and generally making sure every diverse sound is blended in a nuanced way. As a consequence, the production is decidedly less idiosyncratic than Rostam’s used to be but also more accessible. In fact, the album is accessible on every other front as well. Ezra has largely dispensed with the expensive adjectives and exotic proper nouns that rippled through his older work. He still dances around the point, and his songs continue to be rich in allusion and metaphor, but usually there is a discernible message that might once have been cloaked or concealed.

The aspirational sophistication of the band’s early days lingers in the finer details – such as the baroque piano breakdown in ‘Harmony Hall’ and the combination of formal strings and Palm Wine guitar on ‘Rich Man’. But generally the references are more 20th century American. Several of the songs closely resemble the middling pop-rock of AM radio in the mid 70’s – Fleetwood Mac , Paul Simon, Carole King etc while a jammy middle stretch of the album has reminded a lot of people of Phish and Grateful Dead (references which admittedly go over my head I’m afraid). It’s the most collaborative album the band have made, featuring guest appearances both subtle (DJ Dahi, BloodPop®, Rostam) and immediately obvious (guitarist Steve Lacy of The Internet, and Danielle Haim). All of them pay off and compliment the generous, indulgent tone that the record strikes.

As a double album, ‘Father of the Bride’ is understandably imperfect. Three (three!) country duets with Danielle Haim is probably overkill (I myself could do without the slightly disingenuous ‘We Belong Together’ which is little more than a genre exercise without the necessary sincerity). The back half of the record feels a little lumpy at points, lagging with the inoffensive ‘Rich Man’ and ‘My Mistake’, both of which are more mood boards than songs. But you’re more forgiving of low points on a double album and in some ways it adds to the record’s baggy, indulgent charm.

In a recent interview Ezra said “After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper. This is the life-goes-on record.” Like the sunflower that grows in the morning, the Flower Moon that shines out of the darkness, or the protagonist in ‘Big Blue’ who finds solace in the beauty of the ocean during a particularly difficult time – Vampire weekend have survived and adapted after great uncertainty. This recurring theme becomes most clear on the penultimate track ‘Spring Snow’ where the sun melts the snow and ‘bells start to ring.’ The song’s reference to seasons passing and ‘the end’ suggests that the ticking doubts haven’t completed cleared from Ezra’s mind – after all, snow will fall again next winter – but for the moment that bed is cozy and the view outside is beautiful. Once again on ‘Father of the Bride’ man surrenders to the glorious, inevitable will of nature. And it sounds delightful.

9/10

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