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danieltothill
24th April 2024

Vampire Weekend: Indie experimenters push the boundaries on exceptional new release

Vampire Weekend continue to cement a legacy and New York indie royalty with their newest offering, ‘Only God Was Above Us’
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Vampire Weekend: Indie experimenters push the boundaries on exceptional new release
@ Gallery Publicity

Vampire Weekend are a band who have come a long way by refusing to stand still. ‘A-Punk’, now a 42s dance floor filler and staple of indie discos, rests in the rearview mirror. Here is Only God Was Above Us, a fantastic ten track effort detailing a New York long lost and pushing the boundaries of indie music with an unparalleled production style.

A self-confessed obsessor of discographies, Ezra Koenig (the band’s frontman and primary songwriter) has always sought to develop cohesive albums, pushing the band’s sound in diverse directions. Their last effort, Father of the Bride, felt like it could only have been recorded in the sunshine, incorporating country influences, the golden vocals of Danielle Haim and the guitar playing of a soon-to-be superstar, Steve Lacy. These tinges of summer were undoubtedly a product of the band’s move to LA, and I would have to speculate that the departure of Rostam Batmanglij (who went on to produce Clairo’s debut album Immunity) encouraged Koenig and co. to explore new territory. My love of that record had my expectations considerably raised for this new release. Where, after five years, were Vampire Weekend destined to go next?

The answer is back home. New York is intrinsic to the DNA of Vampire Weekend: it is the city of their youth and formation. Modern Vampires of the City (their most celebrated release) even features a smog-soaked NY skyline as its album cover. Here, the aesthetic is decidedly 20th century, with the 80s artwork of Steven Siegel (decidedly less martial arts focused than the deceptively similar Seagal) forming the cover. Music videos promoting the release reference the Beastie Boys and focus on graffiti-splattered subways and streets bustling with a new, ambitious generation.

It is this setting and the individuals who populate it that the lyrics focus on: “vampires who drained the old world’s necks.” In this world, everyone feels they have something to inherit, a fortune destined. But opportunity does not flow so freely, or so equally, as it first appears. A city shining with promise proves a naïve notion as the track list continues. Issues of class arise on ‘Prep School Gangsters’ whilst corruption chips cracks into the city’s morality on ‘Mary Boone’.

Eventually, Koenig’s characters realise that “sifting through centuries for moments of your own” will not reward them with a golden generation or the rewards they seek. The folk-influenced closer ‘Hope’ offers, with hymn-like conviction and reverence, a solution to cling to: relinquish the dreams of others and find your own path. It is in this spirit that the album opens with the line “fuck the world” and, after ruminating on that issue for 47 minutes, eventually “hopes you let it go.” The world might not be all it’s cracked up to be but you, dear listener, you just might be. It’s a simultaneously cynical acknowledgement and inspiring conclusion, a balancing act few bands could accomplish.

@ Gallery Publicity

The album is equally ambitious and deftly diverse in its songwriting and arrangements. The band have never been ruled by the expectations of genre. When the rest of New York’s music scene was still impersonating The Strokes, Vampire Weekend produced a debut rich with Afro-pop and world music, ditching elusive posing for the dress sense of university students who actually attend their lectures. It was a gamble that paid off and, 16 years later, they’re still dedicated to pushing the envelope.

Songs build and morph between the chorus and the verse, orchestral arrangements emerging through the fuzz of some of their most aggressive riffs to date. Album opener ‘Ice Cream Piano’ starts with an almost confessional vocal before building and building, an indicator of the sprawling scope of what’s to come. Hip hop reverb compliments a complex piano solo on ‘Connect’. Soul II Soul are sampled on ‘Mary Boone.’ It seems inspiration was allowed to strike from anywhere, and the masterful production of Ariel Rechtshaid and Koenig incorporates all elements beautifully.

Compared to prior releases, songs at first sound looser and less tied to structure. However, I found that different elements rose to the surface with every repeated listen, revealing the intricate planning behind it all. It’s not often that you feel you can hear every second a band pours into an album. Yet, here the experimentation, vision, and effort of five years resonates in every composition.

I have had little desire to listen to anything else since this album’s release. Admittedly, I’m not without bias: Vampire Weekend are one of my favourite bands. I am also open to arguments that the first half of the album is stronger than the latter or that some tracks are a little weaker – ‘Pravda’ springs to mind. However, this does not make me any readier to move on from this release just yet.

Albums like Only God Was Above Us are rare and vital. They offer the music you’ll return to in ten years time, the moments you’ll recognise. The feelings of the time you heard them will live on between the notes. This album may be about New York, but it encapsulates the spring of 2024 in my ears, the hazy orchestra of ‘The Surfer’ soundtracking the 142 as it passes Platt Fields coming into bloom.

Daniel Tothill

Daniel Tothill

A second year law with criminology student, with a passion for live music, culture and the world around us.

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