God Was Above Vampire Weekend

The early Aughts were great for new alternative music, or so I’m told. I wasn’t paying attention, being overwhelmed with caring sleeplessly for three young children, plus finishing a dissertation and a sideline book. But, apparently, the scene in New York City was buzzing with groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes.

At the tail end of this era came a band of Columbia students who played in Brooklyn art galleries and got their MySpace page promoted by the New York Times before they even had an album out. Their song “Cousins,” about family connections, summarizes the trajectory aptly: “Dad was a risk-taker, his was a shoemaker, / You, ‘Greatest Hits 2006’ little list-maker.”

When I became aware of this band’s existence over a decade later, I asked my musically literate teenage son about them. “What do you think of Vampire Weekend?” “I mean, they’re good, but a little precious,” he said. “They wrote a song about the Oxford comma.” Indeed, the band members embraced their nerdiness and looked less like rockers than models in a J. Crew commercial. The 2010 song “Holiday” appeared in a Tommy Hilfiger ad, natch, and Vulture declared, “Even you could beat up these guys.”

After Vampire Weekend’s first self-titled album appeared in 2008, complaints of this sort multiplied. The album’s Afro-pop influences led to innumerable comparisons to Paul Simon’s Graceland and even more accusations of cultural appropriation. How dare the “the whitest band on the planet” write a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”—one combining, moreover, straightforward coed lust with a Congolese dance rhythm and references to Louis Vuitton!

The denunciations still pop up, as in regrettable subreddits that explain the whiteness of a Jew (Ezra Koenig, the lead singer and guitarist) or an Iranian (Rostam Batmanglij, the band’s former multi-instrumentalist). The usually phlegmatic Koenig groused to Billboard that members of The National went to Columbia too, and no one ever complained about their whiteness. Vulture predicted the inevitable: after one or two attempted reboots of its derivative Simonesque pop, everyone would get bored, and the band members would walk away from their guitars, close the harpsichord, and go to law school.

Wait, the harpsichord? Those who disregarded the smart-assery of the commentariat might notice that Vampire Weekend’s sound is contrapuntally sophisticated, making even the fantastic Graceland sound thin in comparison. Indeed, baroque music has been a constant influence on the band. This is seen most expertly in 2019’s “Bambina.” One of the band’s loveliest songs, it riffs on the 1717 keyboard piece “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” by François Couperin, not a typical aural quotation for alt-rockers.

Moreover, Vampire Weekend made fun of its social class more sharply than any of its erstwhile critics. Consider the swipe at faux-Marxism in “Taxi Cab” (including their own—Koenig campaigned for Bernie Sanders).

Compound to compound, lazy and safe,
Wanting to leave it, wanting to wait.
When the taxi door was open wide, I pretended I was horrified
By the uniform and gloves outside of the court-yard gate.

Or in “Cousins”: “If an interest in culture should be lining the walls, / When your birthright is interest, you can just accrue it all.”

Likewise, one of VW’s funniest songs, the Elvis-inflected “Diane Young,” imagines a rebellious member of the 1-percent: “You torched the Saab like a pile of leaves . . . Outta control, but you’re playing a role. / You think you can go to the eighteenth hole.” One music video features a wanna-be debauchery, with the bass player caressing his espresso machine, while the other video shows . . . a burning Saab. Or take the sunny “Holiday,” of the Hilfiger ad, a song that turns out to be about the Iraq war and sketches a woman who became “a vegetarian since the invasion.” How to respond to global crisis? Change your eating style! The most recent album summarizes this attitude as that of “Prep-School Gangsters.” The lady-friend in “Taxi Cab” might say, “‘Baby, we don't speak of that,’ / Like a real aristocrat,” but Vampire Weekend does anyway.

The band also survived all premature predictions of its demise. When the second album Contra was released in 2010, it made the Vulture critic look like the sophomore. Contra is a masterpiece of crystalline, dense, and riveting musical storytelling, and it debuted at #1 on Billboard, beginning a Grammy-winning run for the band’s next albums.

How else to celebrate this achievement than to have a nervous breakdown?

The breakdown is only hearsay, and Koenig never wrote a New Yorker memoir about this post-Contra period, so we don’t have it from him firsthand. But he did write all the lyrics in VW’s third album, the haunting Modern Vampires of the City. In the much-beloved song “Ya Hey,” he speaks the bridge.

Outside the tent, on the festival grounds,
When the air began to cool, and the sun went down,
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning “Israelites” into “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown.”

What, then, does an Israelite nervous breakdown look like? Here it looks like “remembrances of holy days in Tarrytown and Rye— / I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” Modern Vampires circles around two themes, death and God, with an almost monomania. Sometimes this takes the form of allegory, as in “Hannah Hunt,” a song seemingly about a road trip or elopement of the singer with the titular figure. As the two “made [their] way from Providence to Phoenix,” the song simultaneously denies that this is a providential journey to new life. At the end, in Santa Barbara, “Hannah cried / and missed those freezing beaches. / I walked into town to buy some kindling for the fire / Hannah tore the New York Times up into pieces.” And, indeed, the song is as much about time as about space, with the palindrome “Hannah” moving both backwards and forwards. As the murmured chorus puts it,

Our days were long, our nights no longer,
Count the seconds, watching the hours.
Though we live on the US dollar,
You and me, we got our own sense of time.

At the end, the first two lines are replaced with “If I can’t trust you, then dammit, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer” and screamed against the background of drums that sound like gunshots. The last lines show how Hannah is confused with the divine in the narrator’s mind, as the beginning of the song teases.

A man of faith said hidden eyes
Could see what I was thinking.
I just smiled and told him that was only true of Hannah,
And we glided on through Waverly and Lincoln.

Throughout the album, in fact, God replaces women as the other within an on-again, off-again relationship. “Hold me in your everlasting arms,” Koenig sings, yet with the conviction that “I was made to live without you, / But I'm never gonna understand, never understand.” “Unbelievers” straightforwardly declares, “Girl, you and I will die unbelievers, / Bound to the tracks of the train.” The narrator “want[s] a little grace . . . but what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”

Death makes the problem acute. Rising up out of the ticking clocks of the album is the “headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know.” Even “Diane Young”—dyin’ young, get it?—can’t help reflecting on the drive of time toward death. The elaborate lyrics of “Step” momentarily distract from the death-fixation and remind us of how clever the band can be: “While home in New York was champagne and disco, / Tapes from L.A.-slash-San Francisco / (But actually Oakland and not Alameda). / Your girl was in Berkeley with her communist reader.” Yet the song still lands in “the truth, death, the true way of all flesh. / Everyone’s dying.”

The quandary is that the only solution to death should be God, and yet he is the biggest problem of all. “Worship You” confronts the essential Jewishness of the dilemma. The song sounds like an agnostic Jew who knows his Milton and Nick Cave—that is, Koenig—writing a praise-and-worship song for the Pogues. Amid the racing verses about the worship God demands, the chorus slackens the pace and mourns, “We worshipped You, Your red right hand. / Won’t we see You once again? / In foreign soil, in foreign land, / Who will get us through the end?” “Ya Hey” doubles down on this theme, as a meditation on God’s unsayable name.

Through the fire and through the flames
You won't even say Your name,
Only “I am that I am.”
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey,
Ut Deo, Deo.

Who could ever live that way? Why won’t God say his name? Why must he demand worship in the “City with the weight upon it, / City in the way you want it, / City with the safety of a never-ending blessing on it” (“Worship You”)? As “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” laments, riffing on Leonard Cohen, “I know I loved you then. I think I love you still. / But this prophecy of ours has come back dressed to kill.”

This last song, from the 2019 album Father of the Bride, lands differently than the ones from Modern Vampires of the City, in part because the Israelite nervous breakdown seems to have resolved. It must have helped that the band declared its independence from the pressure of writing, releasing, and touring an album every few years. Further, Koenig landed in marriage and fatherhood: “Another night indoors / Another sign of life / Wobbling up through the floor.” These personal factors lent a new warmth to his songwriting, literally: “I left the wilding, wilding, wilding days of old. / Your house is warmer; the wilderness is cold.”

The result is an album that is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Modern Vampires’ angst, with the simplicity of country music evoked for the first time in the VW corpus. “Bambina” grants that “Time cannot be trusted,” but also that “Life felt like heaven today, / Like a foreign car, though we are American-made.” The chorus perhaps alludes to the mysteriousness of Couperin’s barricades: “My Christian heart cannot withstand the thundering arena.” Another song complains that his beloved “broke my heart at midnight Mass. / Now I’m the ghost of Christmas past.” Yet another cries, “Christ, am I good for nothing?” These new Christian references, which don’t seem to align with any specific religious practice or belief in real life, open up new avenues of lyrical resolution previously missing. Even so, the theme-and-variations structure of “Big Blue” simply repeats the same questions about faith four times over and leaves them open.

Big Blue, for once in my life I felt close to you.
I was so overcome with emotion.
When I was hurt and in need of affection,
When I was tired and I couldn't go home,
Then you offered protection.
So am I learning my lesson? Or am I back on my own?

Vampire Weekend just released its fifth album on April 5 of this year. The band members are around forty years old, and finally, with this album, the press seems resigned to the fact that they are white (maybe; we better consult Reddit). In any case, there are much better things to talk about, such as how these songs continue the band’s streak of reinventing its vibe while still sounding exactly like Vampire Weekend.

This album recalls Modern Vampires in its grittiness and frequently darker themes. “Your consciousness is not my problem, / 'Cause when I come home, it won't be home to you.” The visuals in the videos come from Steven Siegel’s photos of New York City in the 80s, and the feel of the album exudes the graffiti and population of a rougher yet more democratic city in which the middle class could still afford to live. Still, the eclectic sound—incorporating hip hop, Indian music, and jazz—retains much of the brightness that characterizes the previous album, and many songs have lush orchestration added (such as the gorgeous “Prep School Gangsters”).

The album’s playlist, Koenig states, is “a journey from cynicism to optimism; from skepticism to faith.” That reckoning would make the concluding song “Hope” about faith. The song is massive by VW standards, lasting a whole 8 minutes, and its catalog of injustices is balanced out by the gentle, repeated insistence: “Our enemy’s invincible. / I hope you let it go.” Yet the narrator also sings, “I did the things you asked me to, / I testified what wasn't true, / But now I lost my faith in you. / I hope you let it go.” Is God the invincible enemy, as in Modern Vampires, who is finally abandoned?

Or is it the rebellion against him that is let go? The genre-bending “Mary Boone” might imply it. The song is about a city, a woman, art, and God, all at once. Mary Boone might be a specific woman (likely a disgraced art-dealer from the 1980s), but she is just as likely a metaphor, like Hannah Hunt and Diane Young. Here the allegory is about what happens when art isn’t kept pure: “Oh, my love, was it all in vain? / We always wanted money, now the money's not the same.”

The chanted bridge evokes a whole other, transcendent level (maybe someone spinning Modern Vampires with “Hope”?), building up to its unspecified “you.”

Book of hours, Russian icons,
And sand mandalas and Natarajas,
And hex-sign barns, Ando churches
And whirling dervishes, long exposures,
And these two tunnels go west and east.
Let me bring you my masterpiece.
You're the author of everything.
Use this voice and let it sing.

This new album’s title is taken from a 1988 headline, which quotes a passenger on an airplane whose roof ripped off midflight. The man recounts looking up into the open sky through the ruined ceiling and said, “Only God was above us.” At a moment like that, the wail from “Hannah Hunt” could be a prayer: If I can’t trust you, then, dammit, there’s no future; there’s no answer. At that point, a person could rage against “the author of everything,” but who could ever live that way? Perhaps he lets it go.

Featured Image: Vampire Weekend at the End of the Road Festival 2018, taken by Raph_PH; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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