I was first introduced to the band Vampire Weekend through the song “Step,” off the band’s third album, in which the band’s frontman Ezra Koenig’s airy voice effortlessly riffs on a modern love story that casually drops references to both an ancient king and a Run-D.M.C. album in one line. “Step” remains my favorite Vampire Weekend song because it represents the band at its best to me: The band members are sufficiently cosmopolitan to write such lofty and niche lyrics, but still human enough to feel the pangs of jealousy for a girl at the same time.
The release of Vampire Weekend’s newest album “Father of the Bride” in May 2019 marks the band’s 11th year since their eponymous debut album back in 2008. If it were not for the familiar, smooth voice of Koenig, these two albums would hardly seem to be from the same band. The evolution shows how they have grown more emotionally mature and complex, but time has also dulled the smart, distinct edges of their twenty-something, right-out-of-college selves, making them lose the identity that gave them their edge at the beginning of their career.
Just like their covers, Vampire Weekend’s music has changed, especially in what it deals with. The band reminisced about their newly ended college life in their self-titled debut, but their sharp observations about relationships and modern romance end on a superficial level. In the song “Campus,” a college guy tries to avoid a lover but, even when he fails, the most serious consequence is having to study with her in a class.
Since that album, though, one of the band’s main songwriters and instrumentalists Rostam Batmanglij left Vampire Weekend in 2016 to start a solo career; Koenig moved to Los Angeles, became a parent and made an animated series called “Neo Yokio” for Netflix. Life’s experiences have taught the band a few lessons, and their newest album is rife with what they have learned.
“This Life,” my favorite from this album, is a breakup song between a pair of lovers who repeatedly cheat on each other and experience inevitable and unstoppable pain, hate and disease in their destructive relationship. The exultant rhythms cannot gloss over the abjectness in the song’s underlying currents. Koenig even sings that he is not only cheating on the girl, but is “cheating through this life” and questioning if he is “good for nothing” — sobering observations from a character that differ greatly from the ones that Koenig sang about on his first albums. Now, the band makes it clear that a broken relationship means more than just an awkward moment in class.
The other songs in “Father of the Bride” are also imbued with a newfound depth. “How Long” repeats the question of “How long till we sink to the bottom of the sea?” “Unbearably White” describes a coming avalanche. “My Mistake” deplores false hopes for kindness. Compared with the Columbia University campus that inspired the first album and is where the band’s members met, these emotions make Vampire Weekend’s newest album much more relatable and approachable, even if much less specific and original compared to the band’s first three albums.
Even the album covers showcase how much the band has changed. The first two covers evoke Andy Warhol’s Polaroid photographs, and the subjects — a classy party scene under a chandelier and a close-up portrait of a girl in a white polo — directly dial back to Warhol’s interest in taking Polaroid shots of his many celebrity friends and their luxurious lifestyles. Presenting a much larger perspective, the third album cover features a bird’s-eye view of New York City on its smoggiest day in 1966 but still uses the same style and framing. Everything about the band, from their lyrics to their album covers, was meticulous and filled to the brim with references to art, literature and popular culture.
Those three covers look consistent: photographs with a vintage vibe, the white frames and the same large white font for the band name. “Father of the Bride,” however, looks entirely new. It’s flat in a two-dimensional way, the band name is now in black and much more inconspicuous, and the art feels, just like the music, less inspired without the multifaceted references that the polaroids showcased.
It is exciting to see a band grow emotionally and musically — the newest album is looser and includes a variety of styles unseen in their three other albums — but through the transformations, Vampire Weekend has lost their originality. Without their preppy college grad and metropolitan identity, their identity remains an enigma. As the band adjusts from four members to three, maybe they will find an answer in time.
Ellie Yang is a junior in the College. Record Rewind updates in print and online every other Friday.