Vampire Weekend are a little like a college-educated version of the rich young ruler in Mark 10. I say a little because, despite the fact that they have gotten flack for being “privileged, boat shoe and cardigan loving Ivy League graduates,” the New York-based foursome actually probably aren’t as wealthy as skeptics think, and the late 20-somethings probably haven’t been as straight edged as the rich young ruler. I mean, they’re rock stars. And even though they went to Columbia University, rock stars aren’t widely renowned for their moral rigidity.
But on Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, which was released last month to critical acclaim and commercial success, we find lead singer Ezra Koenig asking honest questions of God, much like the young ruler.
On this album, the third in what Koenig sees as a trilogy, Vampire Weekend manage to mature their poppy, eclectic sound, drawing from all sorts of genres and international songs — as they normally do — but also exploring deep questions of morality, love, faith, and belief in complex ways.
One of the most obvious references to religion is on the track “Unbelievers,” which some have pegged as an atheist anthem. But, according to Koenig, who grew up loosely Jewish, the song is more about the confusion young people are faced with today when trying to figure out what to believe in and how people with conflicting beliefs about the world interact with one another. Not surprisingly, Christians aren’t seen in a positive light, as Koenig sings, “If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree/Want a little grace but who’s gonna say a little grace for me?/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.” Even though Koenig can be sure that he loves the girl he’s singing about, what still looms overhead is the judgment of millions and what he sees as the impending flames he destined to spend eternity in.
A few of the songs on the album even look like they might be better off on a Chris Tomlin record, with titles like “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You.” But, unlike many popular Christian artists, Koenig and company manage to marry meaningful, complex lyricism and imagery with diverse and genuinely creative music. The general tone of religious engagement on the album is skeptical and unsure, with a sense of millennial unease and anxiety littered throughout.
Koenig’s Jewish upbringing and Columbia education give him a general knowledge of biblical literature, which surfaces in songs like “Ya Hey,” which is likely a play on YHWH. The chorus comments on the burning bush in Exodus, as Koenig belts, “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,” while instrumentalist and fellow songwriter Rostam Batmanglij chants “Ya Hey” in a pitch shifted to make him sound like a child. But the tone continues with skepticism in the verses, as Koenig sings, “Oh, sweet thing/Zion doesn't love you/And Babylon don't love you/But you love everything/Oh, you saint/America don't love you/So I could never love you/In spite of everything.” It’s direct engagement with the God of the Bible, which seems a little out of place given the light-hearted content of the previous two records.
It’s also important to note Koenig’s perception of YHWH almost as a sort of punisher, which crops up on songs like “Worship You,” as Koenig references God’s “red right hand” in the chorus connoting either a bloody hand or a guilty one. The skeptical tone continues as Koenig asks of God, “won’t we see you once again?”
Other songs, like “Diane Young” — a play on “dying young” and arguably the whole YOLO phenomenon — and “Don’t Lie” wrestle with mortality and the limited time we have in life. And songs like “Hudson” and “Finger Back” take on darker subjects like murder and torture; that is, if they’re not metaphors.
All in all, the production is impeccable. The songwriting is top notch. And, as always, the music is catchier than ever. Vampire Weekend just keep getting better.
Brandon Hook is the Online Assistant at Sojourners.