Is this the rise of the Grateful Undead? Following a six-year wait, Vampire Weekend rewarded fans with new music in January in the form of lead single “Harmony Hall.” When it arrived with a bit of crunch to pair with the band’s signature baroque sound, some social media pundits were quick to suggest that Ezra Koenig’s indie-pop darling had morphed into a jam band.
But as “Father of the Bride,” the band’s fourth album, makes clear, Vampire Weekend remain delightfully elusive when it comes to defining their sound. The band does briefly worship at the altar of Jerry Garcia, but they also pay homage to a host of other genres and musical luminaries, with nods to Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Cash and even film composer Hans Zimmer to be found in the record’s rich, complex offerings.
Instead of a polished concept, Koenig presents his latest album like pages ripped from a Moleskine journal and taped back together. Harking back to the creative freedom established on the Beatles’ eponymous 1968 masterpiece, “Father of the Bride” is 18 tracks of inventive, often brilliant ideas delivered with little concern for how palatable listeners might find them.
This isn’t to say that songs like the sweet folk anthem “Stranger” or the gorgeous, piano-driven closer, “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” are not beneficiaries of Koenig’s meticulous approach to songcraft. Instead, “Father of the Bride” finds Vampire Weekend’s chief singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer operating with full creative autonomy.
Such a scenario was foretold with the 2016 departure of multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, who deserves equal credit for crafting Vampire Weekend’s initial Afro-pop-meets-prep-rock aesthetic and its subsequent evolutions on 2010’s “Contra” and 2013’s “Modern Vampires of the City.” With Batmanglij’s writing contributions limited solely to one song this time around, the full breadth of Koenig’s musical machinations can be felt in every note.
Stitching songs together with auxiliary sounds (studio chatter, the chirp of birds), “Father of the Bride” plays like a series of thematic movements — a perhaps not entirely coincidental choice given Koenig’s well-established affinity for orchestral compositions. Within tracks, abrupt edits and rapid pivots in style seem to confirm Koenig’s interest lies as much in the actual construction of the album as the songs contained within it.
While Batmanglij’s presence is minimal, Koenig has done his best to fill the void. Producers Ariel Rechtshaid, DJ Dahi and Bloodpop all lend their distinct talents this time around, while Vampire Weekend welcomes a fourth, unofficial member to the fold in the form of Haim’s Danielle Haim. Her voice is utilized to great effect on a trio of songs that roughly chart the course of an atypical romance that begins with a doomed wedding (“Hold You Now”) and culminates with cautious optimism for an uncertain future (“We Belong Together”). Elsewhere, her backing vocals add a fluidity to an album that otherwise never sounds disjointed but actively rebukes cohesion.
Lyrically, anxiety and self-reflection are the binding glue that connects Koenig’s meditations on subjects like climate change and privilege.
“Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” he asks on the synth-indebted “How Long.” Though opaque, it’s not hard to ascertain the target of Koenig’s observation. Nestled alongside a tinkling piano line and an almost creepily distorted chorus of “la la las,” Koenig’s words adeptly capture our uncanny ability to bifurcate existential dread with small, daily joys.
In typical Vampire Weekend fashion, that are also some references that might require you to dust off a dictionary, but Koenig’s poetic prowess isn’t merely an exercise in four-syllable words. His observational style, while sometimes pedantic, is also what leads to gems like “Unbearably White” — a ballad in which Koenig uses the desolate imagery of a snowy mountain top and the immensity of a blank page to slyly acknowledge past criticism related to his own band’s charges of cultural tourism and appropriation.
In contrast, the music of “Father of the Bride” is an almost universally radiant offering. Whether Koenig is juxtaposing the modality of Brian Wilson with moody, processed vocals (“Flower Moon”) or tapping into jazz fusion with Steve Lacy, guitarist for the band the Internet, by his side (“Sunflower”), there’s something inexplicably uplifting about this record. Even when Koenig bleakly suggests that “the rising tide’s already lapping at the gate,” he does so with the assistance of an undeniably jaunty guitar riff.
Is this irony? Maybe, but more likely it’s Vampire Weekend’s best effort to authentically represent the chaos of conflicting thoughts that are forced to share a bunkbed in our minds. Considering the far darker ambiance of “Modern Vampires of the City,” it’s understandable that Koenig has chosen to posit “Father of the Bride” as a “life goes on” record. There’s a palpable sense of acceptance in these songs — of becoming an adult, of inheriting an ailing world, of change that is often (but not always) beyond our control.
Here, then, is an album that could soundtrack an afternoon picnic or be used as fodder for a doctorate thesis on songwriting. It’s a beautifully realized cipher in an age of unsatisfying answers. And at a time when many of Vampire Weekend’s former peers are fading from the spotlight, Ezra Koenig has proven that one viable strategy for staying relevant is to simply ignore the problem entirely.
“Father of the Bride”