Music

Vampire Weekend Makes the Best Pop-Political Album of the Year

Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig performs during the Big Night Out music festival in Singapore in 2013. (Timothy Sim/Reuters)
Father of the Bride features the Beltway lyric ‘Wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified.’

To answer the question: What is the best pop album of 2019?

It’s easily Father of the Bride by the impetuously named Vampire Weekend. I commend this album to your attention for the richness of its melodic variety and its surprising emotional and political expression.

You may have given up listening to pop music for being irrelevant, a product of the era’s fame-seeking moneygrubbers robotically asserting liberal inanities. But Father of the Bride’s delight comes from its openly relevant complexities.

In “Sympathy,” the double album’s midway track, this New York–based band put forth its expectations of listeners — those Millennial pop fans now at the forefront of the culture who justify the pleasure of their lifestyles by their presumed political awareness. This rumbling dance track is a rubric: While urging fans to dance, it also widens their sense of fellow feeling, a virtue that has been lost in our current political upheaval. But Vampire Weekend brings back sensitivity through musical vibrancy; the erotic-kinetic impulses of dance pop are used as a model for communication — what politicians used to call “crossing the aisle.”

“I didn’t have your sympathy / But I knew where to start / Explaining to you patiently / That the one who broke my heart / Would have broken yours / And thrown the pieces in the river.”

Accompanied by reverberating rhythm, these lyrics explain the political experience that confounds our age: so many aggrieved people feeling unfulfilled and betrayed by past political choices that they no longer identify their national or humane commonality. This dance track releases their frustration and their aspirations. (“I take myself too serious / It’s not that serious.”) What once was an underground or subcult genre offers irresistible expiation via this track — that’s what pop music is for.

Composer-vocalist Ezra Koenig (age 35) takes the idea of emotional reparation in “Sympathy” from one of Britain’s great post-punk bands, New Order, who revolutionized politicized dance pop in the Eighties and Nineties (with such devout political recordings as “Temptation,” “True Faith,” and “Technique”). Here, Vampire Weekend echoes New Order’s versatility, rhythmic ingenuity, and its romantic-social undercurrent. It’s what, in less fragmented times, was once called “folk music” but now for an era when the term “folk” needs to be redefined.

That endeavor gives the 58-minute Father of the Bride its surprise, excitement, and grandeur. Over 18 tracks, Koenig and company work through the sophistication that defeats us, experimenting with assorted song styles — plus high-information worldliness — without losing the insouciance of their eponymous 2007 debut. Initially known for their preppy eclecticism, Vampire Weekend expands into miscellany as never before. The group’s signature audacious Afropop (a cheeky, bright, guitar-based cross-culturalism) blends into melodies that are closer to home — and so it seems quirky to audiences who are unaccustomed to what used to be classic and traditional.

While moving forward, Vampire Weekend dares go back to forgotten sounds of American sustenance. Despite the group’s flaunted urbanity (promoted as Columbia University graduates, they freely and frequently boast privileged Manhattan — indeed cosmopolitan — consciousness), Father of the Bride’s major motif is country-western music. It’s an appeal to lost custom and striving.

The opening track, “Hold You Now,” is, frankly, astonishing. It alternates Koenig’s solitary musing on infidelity alongside a woman (singer Danielle Haim) who contemplates her wedding day. Their egotism and remorse over impossible longings dramatize a classic country-western theme. (The male-female harmonies heard across the album improve on Vampire Weekend’s regular boyishness with vocal richness reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s late-Seventies melodrama on the esoteric double-album Tusk.) But the warring couple’s verses announce Vampire Weekend’s modern crisis, especially when contrasted with a Micronesian chorale (actually a sample of Hans Zimmer’s movie soundtrack The Thin Red Line). From here, there’s no telling where the album will go, but it’s not scattershot. Its musical juxtapositions convey cultural disparity — not shallow diversity — as well as a spiritual gulf.

It’s possible that the cause of Millennial strife is our over-sophistication. Self-righteousness prevents most contemporary pop artists, whether in music or film, from realizing that the nature of their social polarization goes deeper than politics. Vampire Weekend grasps this fundamental problem as initiated in the ex-lover’s counterpoint “You just watch your mouth / When talkin’ ’bout / The father of the bride.”

On previous albums, Vampire Weekend repeatedly returned to the quandary of Koenig’s ethnic foundation and the source of his identity and moral fealty. This insecurity peeks through some of the band’s jauntiest, most unassuming tracks. The disarming “M79” pondered “racist dreams you should not have” in between casual descriptions of class advantages. Not since Public Enemy has an American pop group dared articulate such predicaments. These issues also stymie politicians. Koenig may have supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, but Sanders’s mollycoddling platform never approaches the real-life perplexities that Koenig — a pop poet — sings about.

Koenig’s light, boyish vocals are deceptive — like Paul Simon’s keening entreaties that soft-pedaled erudition to both flatter and challenge listeners. I wager that Koenig is, fittingly, more impudent if only from the necessity of taking on this peevish world in his own way. That’s how Father of the Bride breaks through disingenuous politics.

Vampire Weekend’s songs, which stem from patrilineal culture, are also about its fracture. On “This Life,” Koenig and a mate sing “I been cheatin’-on cheatin’-on you / You been cheatin’-on cheatin’-on me / I been cheatin’ my way through this life / And all its suffering /Oh, Christ /Am I good for nothing?” Invoking the deity harkens back to the first track’s confession-and-liturgy. In addition to being a record with political aspects, Father of the Bride deals with religion as, ultimately, a moral exploration.

Vampire Weekend most notably pursued this religious question on 2013’s “Finger Back” (a song about intermarriage), where the line “I don’t want to live like this / But I don’t want to die” first appeared, announcing Koenig’s sociopolitical-ethnic position. “Finger Back” was a quasi-rap, daring the most outrageous social proposition since Public Enemy’s interracial satire “Pollywanacracka.”

Father of the Bride’s delicately moving closing track, “New York, Jerusalem, Berlin” spells out modern Jewish paradox in an increasingly non-orthodox world. This may partly account for the Sanders fixation, but other tracks test its practicality. On “Sympathy,” Koenig explains “Judeo-Christianity / I never heard the words / Enemies for centuries until there was a third . . . / ’Cause I was looking in the mirror.” For all his poetic undertakings, Koenig never stops self-examination. Father of the Bride charts an Every Millennial journey to discover one’s spiritual, social, moral place.

The album’s sweetest track, “We Belong Together,” borrows Kanye West’s nonchalance to make simple rhyming sentiment into political profundity (“We go together like Keats and Yeats”) then hikes up the significance: “We stay united like these Ol’ States / It’s how we go together.” Koenig and Haim are reunited for our Republic’s most wised-up wishing: “Baby, there’s no use in being clever / It don’t mean we stay together.” While recalling a nursery-school chant, the song is also politically sobering. “Hallelujah, you’re still mine . . . / How’d this pair of stars align?”

There’s lament inside Vampire Weekend’s wonderment, which gives substance to the album’s first single, “Harmony Hall.” Summarizing 21st-century discontent, the song is lively while containing our conflicting instincts: “Anger wants a voice / Voices want to sing / Singers harmonize / Till you can’t hear anything.” Political cacophony is not excused, but our recognition of what it is, is enriched, made sumptuous.

Koenig critiques our corrupted institutions: “The stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness / Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place / You thought was dignified / I don’t want to live like this / But I don’t want to die.” This Millennial jeremiad supplies the righteousness that’s been missing from much current deranged discourse. Like the “Hallelujah!” in “We Belong Together,” it is uniquely satisfying. No op-ed pundit has accomplished the emotionally generous detachment of “Harmony Hall.” (The song’s title references a Columbia dormitory, evocative for alumni like me but an institutional metaphor for others.) Koenig continues the moral obligation that Morrissey revived in his cover of Phil Ochs’s “Days of Decision” on California Son. Every line is more poignant, and each measure more lovely, than the preceding. Beneath gentle pianissimo is the rhythmic rumbling of communion — it is spiritually soaring and makes you want to dance-out everyday anxiety. How a song this extraordinary, this buoyant and rousing, failed to be the No. 1 record on everyone’s mind is the great artistic mystery of 2019.

Vampire Weekend states our political condition perfectly: “Now we got that sympathy / What I’m to you / You are to me / Let’s go.” We need a twelve-inch dance-club remix right now.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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