Album Review: Vampire Weekend, ‘Only God Was Above Us’

    Vampire Weekend might be the last band of the mid-’00s indie boom you’d expect would open an album with the words “Fuck the world.” The first song on Only God Was Above Us, ‘Ice Cream Piano’ – “In dreams, I scream piano,” the chorus goes – is by no means an attempt to come off as fatalistically youthful or hardcore, despite the purported influence of the Minutemen on a new offshoot Ezra Koenig and his bandmates Chris Baio and Chris Tomson have been teasing. Koenig sings the line softly, from the perspective of a careful observer – “You said it quiet/ No one could hear you/ No one but me.” Yet there’s no doubt he, like most of us, have at some point related to the sentiment, even if you’re more prone to cursing under your breath than screaming at the top of your lungs. Koenig, who turns forty this month, isn’t embracing maturity by distancing himself from the characters he embodies – he does it by leaning in and zoning out at the same time, neither vindictive nor defensive, not quite impersonal but never actually confessing. He’s been that “angry child,” of course, but that’s only the start of the journey, and he’s got a limited time frame to relay it.

    He’s waited, though, and for good reason: “If all you’re doing is making music, what’s the music about?” Koenig has said, explaining why, beyond the obvious burnout, he’s no longer intent on releasing albums back to back. Since Vampire Weekend’s last album, 2019’s Father of the Bride, Koenig has lived in New York City, Tokyo, London, and Los Angeles, and he wrote and recorded parts of the new album in all those cities. Only New York creeps into its lyric sheet in any tangible way, however, but more as a reference point, a temporary home base, the ghost of which is more fascinating than the reality Koenig currently faces or even grew up in. ‘The Surfer’, for instance, references Water Tunnel No. 3, a water-supply tunnel that has been under construction since 1970 and is expected to be completed in 2032; ‘Prep-School Gangsters’ takes its title from a 1966 New York magazine cover story about, according to its subheading, “some of New York’s richest kids join[ing] forces with some of its poorest.” Koenig isn’t digging up these stories for thematic commentary so much as he is drawn by their cross-generational appeal: “Somewhere in your family tree/ There was someone just like me,” he sings on the latter.

    If Koenig’s lifestyle has informed what the album’s about, it’s in the feelings he conveys. The songs careen between restlessness and a kind of hazy solitude, both states that either distract or force us to ascribe meaning to our lives. At first glance, the lead singles ‘Capricorn’ and ‘Gen-X Cops’ exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is meditative and expansive, capturing the oddly particular tone of a line like, “Sifting through centuries/ For moments of your own.” Though it arrives early on the album, a sense of exhaustion has already set in, steering the protagonist away from rage and towards an alternative path: kinder, more genuine, and above all effortless. Even on ‘Gen-X Cops’, the buzziest, most driving song on the album, Koenig sounds doomed, not energized, by the pace at which everything moves: “Forever cursed to live unrelaxed” is definitely a line a guy whose “passion in life is chilling” would sing. (Rock stars: they’re just like us.) But the song that’s most direct and solemn in its vulnerability is ‘Connect’, which sees Koenig pondering, “Is it strange I can’t connect?/ It isn’t strange but I could check,” as if he simply is talking about a technical connection. “I need it now,” he sings, accompanying himself in a high-pitched voice that can be misheard, just as affectingly, as “I need to know.”

    An older Vampire Weekend might have left the song at three minutes, but just as it winds down, the band picks it up again, as if rearranging it from broken pieces and muffled memories. Making up for the gap between albums, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City and Father of the Bride were both stylistic swerves: one darker and strangely haunted, the other sprawling and casually vibrant. But Only God Was Above Us is the band’s first album since Contra that’s more interested in merging and retaining qualities from different eras; though lyrically and thematically, strongest are the echoes of Modern Vampires, and there’s even a beautiful ballad, ‘Mary Boone’, that feels like a descendant of ‘Hannah Hunt’. The record is focused yet loose, joyful and noisy, anxious yet curiously unfazed. It finds a definition of “alternative” that’s entirely contingent on the band’s own trajectory and musical language, which it unsettles mainly by playing with two elements: distortion – whether sputtering through ‘Ice Cream Piano’ or abrading the bright touch of ‘Classical’ – and space.

    The album ends with Vampire Weekend’s longest song to date, the eight-minute ‘Hope’, which might seem like an obvious conclusion to a record beginning with “Fuck the world.” But it’s bolder in stretching that sentiment out, the refrain of “I hope you let it go” simply threading each verse rather than necessarily growing in conviction. In an interview, Koenig described optimism as fatalism taken to the extreme, rather than its opposite: “There’s fatalism – the world is a chaotic place and isn’t that terrible? And then there’s optimism – the world is a chaotic place, and you gotta surf that wave.” Only God Was Above Us not only illustrates this point, but makes it easier to surrender to that hopeful resolve, even if you’ll have to let it go, too.

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    Vampire Weekend might be the last band of the mid-'00s indie boom you’d expect would open an album with the words “Fuck the world.” The first song on Only God Was Above Us, ‘Ice Cream Piano’ – “In dreams, I scream piano,” the chorus...Album Review: Vampire Weekend, 'Only God Was Above Us'