Reading Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend performing in San Francisco in 2013.
Ezra Koenig has done his English homework. Koenig, frontman of the indie-rock band Vampire Weekend (VW), is every bit as much a poet as he is a musician, and his songs’ lyrics show it. His lyrical output over the past decade started in abstract aristocratic beach-pop, somersaulted into beat-poetry inspired ballads, and pirouetted with auto-tuned gospel hymns, all the while including astute literary allusions within its meter. This tendency toward the artistic and the absurd, combined with formal rigor, makes VW one of most textually rich acts making music today, and therefore, even when the stereo is off, also the most readable.
Audio aside, VW’s self-titled debut is a trove of colorful vignettes of collegiate life. Each one charts the band’s frantic, blue-blooded youth at Columbia University from a different angle and with a different storytelling style. On “Mansard Roof,” a narrator describes the sensation of rising, both literally and socio-economically – beneath him he identifies “hot garbage and concrete” on New York City streets, while above he can now spy “a salty message in the eaves” of the titular French roofs. Next the narrator relays a scene where naval officers sail away from a clash off the Argentinian coast; the song then ends abruptly. These disjointed images typify VW’s bizarre narrative style: Koenig might be trying to make broad philosophical connections between, say, wealth and imperial war, but he also might just be following his unruly imagination down whichever sea-lanes it takes him.
Placing the Dalai Lama in Midtown is far and away Koenig’s favorite rhetorical move in his lyrics. The song “M79,” about the Upper-East-Side-bound Manhattan bus, compares an occupant’s harrowing trek into a more posh neighborhood to negotiating the mountainous “Khyber Pass” in Pakistan. The album is chock full of this: an account of a particularly frustrating traffic jam on Cape Cod’s bottleneck morphs into a tribute to a famed Caribbean poet on “Walcott.” References in general abound in VW’s discography, to the point that some songs feel like they have more name-drops than original material. Tracks like “Oxford Comma” nod to British theater, the war in Iraq, the rapper Lil Jon, and, of course, the “highest Lama” himself. “A-Punk,” a quirky and inscrutable parable about two wealthy New Yorkers, halfway through becomes (I’m pretty sure) an elaborate Bob Dylan reference – the track is a bricolage of Dylanesque images like cursed rings, mysterious harmonicas, unnamed judges, raincoats, road trips, and women named Johanna.
The party starts to die down on “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance,” though, and with this closing track Koenig transitions into some of the more mature preoccupations that will haunt his next two albums. Here Koenig laments his classmates’ loss of innocence by imagining the corporate world as a sort of massive, slow, rhythmic waltz, replete with “shiny, shiny cufflinks,” “forty-million dollars,” and “pin-striped men of morning / the partners in the dance.” This same slow-motion tragedy lurks behind VW’s entire third album, Modern Vampires of the City, which deals primarily with adulthood and fear of ‘selling out’ along with a theme that is a newcomer to the VW discography: death. But the Koenig writing tracks on Vampires is now no longer an English teacher living in Brooklyn, but instead a wildly successful veritable rock star. His priorities have shifted accordingly, from Allen Ginsberg-styled screeds against consumerism to philosophical debates with himself about God and religion.
Poetry always on their mind, the VW crew have an ear for the flowery, luscious sentence, and the well-timed metaphor. Their second album Contra contains countless perverse and memorable literary comparisons. A bad relationship is analogized to the Nicaraguan revolution, of all things, on “I Think You’re A Contra”; producer and songwriter Rostam Batmanglij renders the feeling of utter emotional desolation in the form of none other than our nearby Potomac River on “Diplomat’s Son”: “Looking out at the ice cold water all around me / I can’t feel any traces of that other place / In the dark when the wind comes racing off the river.”
Modern Vampires of the City’s mood is as spacey and somber as its cover art: a thick smog cloud moves south over Lower Manhattan in a black-and-white 1966 photograph. To be sure, the locales are still far-flung (“Angkor Wat / Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar es Salaam”), and the references even more so (“She’s richer than Croesus”), but now Koenig is more jaded, world-weary, and his New Left-sensibilities of old are left at an ironic distance. Looking in the morning mirror, the narrator on “Obvious Bicycle” sighs, “It’s been twenty years and no one’s told the truth.” What really elevates Koenig’s material, in spite of all the trendy settings and ethereal production, is a simple knack for good storytelling and his words’ ability to capture eternal paradoxes within simple turns of phrase. Koenig croons on “Unbelievers”: “If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree / Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?”
PC: Thomas Rx / Wikimedia Commons