On their third album, Vampire Weekend continue to progress from the collegiate prep-friendly Afro-pop revivalism of their 2008 eponymous debut into something more expansive. The Paul Simon influence is still there, but gone is the constant comparing to specific tracks of the Graceland ilk. This is no longer a band whose success is contingent on trendy Afro-pop revivalism. Such is apparent immediately with opener “Obvious Bicycle”, where a stumbling grand piano laces gently over click-clacking mechanical percussion; the latter provides a wonderfully addictive contrast to frontman Ezra Koenig fleeting yet anthemic croon. It’s not the type of effort with the prevalent hooks that have brought Vampire Weekend such massive college radio play in the past, but it touches on a sort of delicately empowering atmosphere that previous Vampire Weekend efforts were reluctant to venture toward. As the band’s members approach their 30s, it’s clear that new stylistic territory is not a bad thing. Rather, it’s a natural progression, and that’s precisely what Modern Vampires of the City is for this NYC-based quartet.
Being recorded in several different locations with two producers, there was plenty of reason prior to release that suggested Modern Vampires of the City would sound scattered. Instead, the group’s uptick in ambition prevents most bouts of non-cohesion, as the album shows when it jumps into the airy jubilance of “Unbelievers”, whose hook rides on the marimba-like keyboard stutter that Vampire Weekend has seemingly made their own since past efforts like “Oxford Comma” and “Cousins”. “Unbelievers” provides a welcomed dash of familiarity that prepares listeners for styles not usually associated with Vampire Weekend. The scenically enthralling “Hudson” is one of them, touting a cinematic grip full of nocturnal synth pads and weeping string accompaniments. A ghostly choir echoes over wartime percussion as Koenig’s vocals strike an unfounded fear, a remarkable transition from his usually gleeful vocal delivery. “Hudson” is the type of ambition Vampire Weekend has tinkered with so successfully on Modern Vampires of the City.
The gargling bass-led lull of “Everlasting Arms” is another interesting endeavor that finds solace in contrast; the night-friendly rhythm section is casually restrained, even as Koenig’s vocals maintain the youthfully fleeting qualities that have been apparent ever since the group’s 2008 debut. Still, as the hook depends primarily on slight percussive alteration and throwaway string additives that simply don’t fit, the band has written plenty better. The jumpily raucous “Finger Back” brings listeners back to a mode of excitement, which is best shown in the album’s mid-section with efforts like “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey”, the latter of which is ignited by range-altered vocal samples and ascending sprightly keyboards. “Diane Young” may be getting all the radio play so far with its bubbly boisterousness, but “Ya Hey” shows why Vampire Weekend was wise in choosing it as the second single. Its piano lead recalls Baroque-inspired piano-pop, while the sample-friendly alterations provide a modern twist. It’s a clashing of the past and present, done with shocking cohesion and making it one of Vampire Weekend’s best efforts to date.
Even as Vampire Weekend distance themselves from the image of preppy Paul Simon-loving revivalists, there is a youthful enthusiasm that permeates throughout the entirety of Modern Vampires of the City, from its blasts of energy (“Ya Hey”, “Worship You”) to retrospective atmospheric haunts (“Hudson”, “Obvious Bicycle”). This enthusiastic mish-mashing is a tendency that one hopes Vampire Weekend will never lose. Modern Vampires of the City is an album that strikes a remarkable balance between moving forward and clinging to what already works, which for Vampire Weekend is a love for anthemic hooks led by chirpy vocal melodies and chiming arrangements. The keyboards often stick to a rolling energy akin to Afro-pop, but other elements – from sample-friendly alterations to rock-inspired guitar crunches – construct an engaging sound that should make fans grin ear-to-ear. Even if radio airwaves may prefer Vampire Weekend’s first two albums due to its familiar tendencies, Vampires of the City will be the darling of critics for its more ambitious crawl toward the unexpected.