Who else loves following a band’s trajectory? Catching up with a discography after a musician has come and gone is alright, because it’s a finite body of work, but watching a group change and grow from album to album, with a couple of years between releases is like going on a journey. It’s like growing up alongside friends, then you look back, remember conversations past, and realize you’ve matured a little bit over the passage of time.
Not that Vampire Weekend has ever really been immature. The quartet is lightyears more educated and intelligent than I could ever hope to be. But the latest release, Modern Vampires of the City, sees a band preoccupied with the heavier concepts of faith and death, where once the discussion was madras commas, or something. The topics of discussion are different, but the band handles them in its distinct style, simultaneously thoughtful and rambunctious.
Pop the disc into your physical media machine and you hear religious intimations right in the first track, “Obvious Bicycle.” Frontman Ezra Koenig and backing harmonies beckon us simply to “listen,” but rather than a dictatorial sermon, he intends to provide over the following 45 minutes emotional observations about the modern world. As our ears open, “Unbelievers” lays on us a depressing truth: “The world is a cold, cold place to be.”
Ezra and guitarist/keyboardist/everythingist Rostam Batmanglij are responsible for the record’s lyrical content, and the questions over faith that begin in “Unbelievers” linger throughout the rest of the runtime: “We know the fire awaits unbelievers / All of the sinners the same / Girl, you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train.” Fatalistic, yet accepting of that fate. This is someone who understands that beliefs are practically ingrained, that we don’t necessarily choose what we believe in. There’s only one way to avoid Hell, but if your heart’s not in it, there’s not much more you can do.
In this record, I hear someone trying to reconcile cultural heritage with modern society. I think somewhere in here is a person who wants to believe in a god, but finds himself unable. Rather than the comparatively childish points of view you may hear in atheist punk or Christian “rock,” V-Dubs recognizes the uncertainty inherent in theology, as the song “Everlasting Arms” demonstrates: “Oh I was made to live without you… Could I have been made to serve a master? / Well I’m never gonna understand, never understand.” Wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.
I mean, after all, we all have the same information set in front of us, right? We all have the same access to the same holy books. So when someone claims they know for certain what the afterlife entails, we should be skeptical. How can a rabbi in Brooklyn be correct in his assumptions about the universe when the Hindu Vedas tell us something completely different? The answer is that no one actually knows anything. Scientologists have as equally strong a claim on Truth as do Muslims or Protestants. The Pope doesn’t know God any better than Mr. Koenig does.
That’s why Vampy Weeks has license to be a little critical of the old school. The spoken-word interlude during “Finger Back,” for example, illustrates a New York Jewish woman eschewing her religion’s convention to segregate the sexes. Traditionally, the Passover Seder concludes with a hope that next year we may celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem, yet ironically the Hebrew girl’s transgression takes place at a particularly named restaurant at 103rd and Broadway. How challenging is it to remain Orthodox in contemporary society? Is it worth the effort?
After “Finger Back” is “Worship You,” reminiscent of Contra‘s “Cousins,” with these vocals coming as fast as the latter’s snare hits. The tempo tramples lyrics that lay bare one of my earliest theological grievances: God sure seems insecure for a deity. He constantly needs praise, despite the fact that he’s ostensibly responsible for all the misery in the world. To paraphrase Carlin, if the world as we see it is the best God can do, I’m not impressed. Incidentally, Koenig put thousands of years of philosophical inquiry and theological apologetics to bed by providing an acceptable answer to the Problem of Evil.
Up next is “Ya Hey,” perhaps the most overtly religious track on the album.
Pretty much everything is summed up in the chorus, “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?” Interspersed between these lines are various manipulations of the name “Yahweh,” a word I don’t think I’m technically even allowed to type, let alone pronounce out loud (Try it. Did you get struck by lightning?). The chants were heavily manipulated in post-production, and evoke the sound that Moses heard bellowing to him from the burning bush. This song, like others on the album, hints at a yearning for the security religion offers, but ultimately decides that way of life is untenable when confronted with modernity.
But who can blame them? Death is all around us, as tracks like “Don’t Lie,” “Hudson,” and the cleverly titled “Diane Young” remind us. Notions of fate and faith help ease the suffering, but it’s a struggle to get on board with the concepts if you just don’t believe them. It takes an amount of maturity to step back, consider all the possibilities, and figure out what your values are, especially if your spiritual wants don’t line up with your reality. The album ends with Ezra addressing the audience: Despite uncertainty, death, and crises of faith, “You take your time, young lion,” repeats. It’s OK that these things take a while to parse. Take your time. Cogitate. Everyone who experiences life gets a say, and all opinions are valid. After all, the questions we’re dealing with here are some of the most important, and they require lifetimes to answer.