May 02, 2019
Their first album in six years sees VW integrating styles from country to flamenco into their preppy pop, often brilliantly
Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride review, a scrapbook of brilliant ideas
Six years ago, as Vampire Weekend released their last album, frontman Ezra Koenig reflected on their progress. “If people could look at our three albums as a bildungsroman,” he told the New York Times, “I’d be OK with that.” On one level, of course alt-rock’s premier chroniclers of preppy romance and wordy middle-class angst would start chucking 19th-century German literary terms around when asked to consider their oeuvre. On the other, Vampire Weekend’s first three albums did feel like a trilogy, covering a life from studenthood to late-twentysomething dread.
Koenig’s remark implied that his band would move on to different territory, which brings us to Father of the Bride, an album that comes in a sleeve that looks like a home-made banner at a climate-change protest and that seems to fix its gaze a little wider than the manicured lawns of moneyed upstate New York, or the inside of a brain suddenly gripped by adult pressures and fears of mortality. It deals with many topics that have exercised songwriters of late, from the noise of social media and its bubbles to the rise of populist politics, and does so with an elegant turn of phrase: “Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” It concludes with a song (Jerusalem, New York, Berlin) that ponders the Balfour declaration and the creation of Israel, albeit in vague terms.
But the biggest shifts on Father of the Bride are musical, rather than lyrical. Its 18 tracks seem to belong in an august tradition begun by the Beatles’ eponymous 1968 release: the double album not as grandiose conceptual statement, but a crowded, loose scrapbook of ideas, not all of them fully baked. It’s underlined by the fact that the sound is frequently muffled or swathed in hiss, as if you’re listening to an old cassette of off-the-cuff recordings rather than an album graced by the presence of big-name producers who have worked with U2, Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber between them.
In fact, Father of the Bride does a lot of White Album-ish things: songs crash into each other, or are separated by snatches of studio dialogue, or die away to be replaced by the sound of tweeting birds. There are tracks that sound more like unfinished interstitials than songs. There are unexpected stylistic lurches into pre-war pop: the beautifully mournful piano ballad My Mistake has a distinct air of the great American songbook. There’s country and western, too, the latter a rather surprising tack for representatives of the opposite end of the musical spectrum towards earthy blue-collar simplicity. And yet, here they are, employing a pedal steel player and duetting with Danielle Haim on a song called Married in a Goldrush that sets a distinctly Nashville tune against chattering electronics.
The point of double albums is to show off an artist’s teeming multiplicity of new ideas, coming so thick and fast they didn’t have time to waste finessing them. The problem with double albums is almost invariably that not all your ideas are going to work. So it is here. The caution-to-the-wind atmosphere leads to some errors of judgment. Single This Life, with its interpolation from an old ILoveMakonnen track, wobbles jauntily but precariously along the line that separates charming from irritating. Sympathy sounds like the work of people so pleased at the musical hybrid they’ve created – equal parts flamenco and early Pet Shop Boys – that they forgot to write a song to go with it. Sunflower, apparently the result of Koenig’s interest in post-Grateful Dead jam bands, features a horrible tricksy little riff that sounds like something off the soundtrack of a pre-schoolers’ cartoon, and isn’t much improved by having Koenig scat-sing along with it.
And yet the bad ideas are vastly outweighed by moments where you can hear a band pushing past their boundaries with striking results: Harmony Hall, which relocates Vampire Weekend’s love of baroque pop and Paul Simon on to a rangy, Sympathy for the Devil-ish groove; the section of the sharply episodic Hold You Now when a choral sample from the soundtrack of The Thin Red Line unexpectedly crashes in. On the knowingly titled Unbearably White, the apparent looseness of the sound conceals a rich, complex song, subtly arranged; Jerusalem, New York, Berlin spikes its lo-fi piano with an uneasy electronic undercurrent.
The lyrics occasionally suggest that the musical restlessness is meant to mirror the uncertainty of the world in 2019, but ultimately Father of the Bride feels more bold than tentative. There’s a confidence implicit in letting the public see your rough workings and you can see where the confidence comes from. Not every new route works but a lot of them do: as a bildungsroman author might note, it’s important to keep things moving on.
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