By Sam Buntz
Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride is the only album you will listen to this year featuring lyrics like, “You broke my heart at midnight mass / Now I’m the ghost of Christmas past” and “What’s the point of human beings? / A Sharpie face on tangerines.” Not to forget, “We go together like Keats and Yeats.”
Vampire Weekend’s sensibility is utterly authentic. You can tease threads out from the album, and say, “That lyric vaguely echoes Springsteen,” or “Those solos are clearly in homage to the Grateful Dead.” But, still, Vampire Weekend doesn’t really sound like anybody else. They’re American originals, to trot out a worn but applicable phrase.
I lived inside their previous album, Modern Vampires of the City, when it came out in 2013. Its agnostic quest, its mingled skepticisms and near-affirmations, spoke directly to where I was in my own life. It’s one of those masterworks that have such depth and immediate, personal resonance that they seem to be speaking for you and to you. It embodies a vibe that is uniquely personal to the songwriter, while also capturing something in the air, a frequency to which other internal antennas are tuned. (I detailed my thoughts on that album here).
Father of the Bride is having a like effect on me. It deals with many of the same themes as Modern Vampires of the City, propelling its internal anxieties and conflicts onward – dragging them from winter into spring, into a different sonic and emotional atmosphere, giving them space, letting them grow and progress. (There’s a cyclic seasonal rhythm to all four Vampire Weekend albums). The album’s narrative encompasses the personal, the social, and, indeed, the universal, offering moments that are both deeply intimate and panoramic in scope. Like Springsteen and Simon, Mitchell and Cohen, chief lyricist and songwriter Ezra Koenig makes these songs as personal for the listener as they are for him. The album’s fusion of this individual narrative with a broader societal narrative is particularly impressive and beguiling. The entire album can be heard both ways. Lyrics that read as domestic drama will suddenly open up, displaying a greater import.
In an age that constantly thrusts our attention outward into crowd-oriented hysterias, Father of the Bride is a welcome antidote. It reels us back in, confronting us with what is most meaningful or perplexing in any given life. And confronting what is most meaningful is usually the same as confronting what is most painful.
Yet, this painful subject matter – the “constant ping pong match of desire” – is irresistibly presented in the mode of melodically attractive and catchy pop music. (Ariel Rechtshaid’s production is so meticulous he actually ensured the songs wouldn’t lose elements when played on lousy laptop speakers and phones.) I have no idea how a reviewer from Pitchfork managed to find only songs of “contentment” on this album, claiming it lacked the previous album’s fertile anxieties. To my ears, the entire record is rife with disputation, reflection, and striving, a continuous war between “Yes” and “No,” push and pull, a yearning towards reconciliation that often collapses but then continues to move towards its right end.
As on the earlier albums, Koenig’s lyrics seem to narrate the travails of either one character or a cast of characters, akin to Evelyn Waugh’s “Bright Young Things,” who populate the novelist’s early works. (Koenig has cited Waugh as an overt inspiration – and the Waugh parallels are perhaps even deeper than they might first appear. Waugh traces the journey of fast-moving young sophisticates towards a confrontation with first and last things, faith and love and death). Koenig has stated that, like Springsteen’s double-album The River, Father of the Bride has an implied overarching narrative and a theme. I aim to provide my own specific take on what this narrative is. Obviously, reality presents itself to different people in different ways, and a crazy, anemone-like growth of interpretations is all to the good. I don’t claim this is the only way to understand the album. But after letting it form the soundtrack to my life over this past weekend, I feel prepared to venture some cautious notes on its meaning.
The first song, “Hold You Now,” is key to interpreting what follows. The song appears, on the surface, to present two lovers arguing, one begging the other not to marry someone else. But when you realize its true import, it brings you up with a start. The woman in the song isn’t marrying a person – it seems like she’s marrying God. (The soul is the bride and Christ the bridegroom in many mystical theologies). The man in the song is unmoved: “Promises of future glory don’t make the case for me.” He sings, “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now.” The bride says he’s acting ridiculous, telling him, “You just watch your mouth when talking ‘bout the Father of the Bride.” (The Father of the Bride here is clearly God – who is also apparently the bridegroom, funnily enough). Then, in a sample from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to The Thin Red Line, a Melanesian choir sings lyrics that, translated into English, read, “God, take my life and let it be / Consecrated, Lord, to Thee; / Take my hands and let them move / At the impulse of Thy love.”
Which makes it pretty clear…
Now, I’m not going to argue for a spiritual interpretation of the entire album. But this first song introduces a fundamental theme or pattern that runs through the whole. The singer of these songs continually struggles with whether to merge into something greater than himself or collapse back into a state of isolation. The songs analyze the dangers and hopes of identifying with a larger source of Being, alternately moving towards it and pulling away. The track, “This Life,” contains the lyrics, “And darling our disease is the same one as the trees’ / Unaware that they’ve been living in a forest.” One wants to escape this isolated, ego-cocoon – but the greater, unbounded reality is intimidating and has unforeseen perils of its own.
The quest of this album, its burden of meaning, is for a greater context, a life in which one relates to the entire interconnected web of existence, rather than merely to one’s own egoistic projections. One either lives a life that is self-enclosed, so to speak – locked up in a hermetically sealed shell of self – or, one breaks out of it, and joins a greater field of interconnection and relation. That’s why some of the critics are saying that the album is “about” world peace or environmental awareness or getting back to Nature. The idea of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity and the concept of ecological interdependence are both forms of the “greater field of interconnection and relation” just referred to. They are ways of comprehending it or understanding it. But neither exhausts its meaning.
The well is deep, my friends.
On the songs, this “greater field of interconnection and relation” is not always God, though sometimes it definitely seems like it is, especially on “Big Blue,” which describes a moment of transcendental union with the divine and the comedown. In the end, the singer asks, “Am I learning my lesson / Or am I back on my own?” Vampire Weekend’s music, whether it’s dealing with love lost and won or spiritual struggles, always has friction within it. The attempted reconciliation of opposites recurs perpetually. That’s why a song like, “Big Blue,” with its George Harrison-style liquid lead guitar line and transcendental yearning, is affecting in a way much self-billed “Christian Rock” isn’t. It’s not making a casual, unearned affirmation. It’s striving towards something, with all the false starts and backward slidings characteristic of real life. In that way, it’s lyrically akin to the work of both Harrison and Leonard Cohen.
The album poses that question, “Am I back on my own?,” repeatedly, in one way or another. In “Unbearably White,” the singer “Ran up the mountain, out of your sight / The snow on the peak was unbearably white.” It achieves the interesting reversal of taking a phrase, “unbearably white” that is typically used by clickbait journalists to criticize Wes Anderson movies, and uses it, instead, for metaphorical and poetic purposes. (The same trite phrase has been applied to Vampire Weekend’s music in the past, too). The song fools us into expecting some sort of message about the machinations of contemporary journalists with its title, when it’s really pointing towards something deeply personal, an experience of loss and emptiness represented by endless blankness. That’s an intentional feint and riposte. The song intimates a life-in-death, separate from other human beings: “What kept us together, darling, is what kept us alive.” At a point of emotional desolation, after a break-up, say, we confront an extreme of emptiness, and what previously seemed to be a world of living color fades into universal pallor.
In “Sympathy,” Koenig sings, “In the ping-pong match of constant desire / I was never gonna get ahead / ’Cause I was looking in the mirror.” This is another moment of isolation, of separation from a larger current of life – marking time on the walls of the ego-cocoon, lost in one’s own self-image, oblivious to the stream of humanity and poetry eddying through existence. But a moment of sympathy and understanding brings the reinforced walls of self crashing down. This is likened to a moment on the island military base, Diego Garcia, “Lonely in the ocean, but in every other way / It was full of love / And the warmth of fellow feeling.” The song, “Rich Man” too, is sung by a rich man who claims to have a satisfied mind, despite the fact that it’s hard to find “one rich man in ten who has a satisfied mind.” In reality, it seems like he’s fooling himself. Gold, throughout the album, tends to compound isolation and separate people, rather than alleviating their sorrows. (Listen to the track, “Married in a Goldrush.”)
While the album is duly focused on the personal, and addresses us individually as well as socially, it also casts considerable shade on our crowd-oriented modes of being. “Harmony Hall” sends up twitter mobs and political extremism: “Anger wants a voice / Voices want to sing / And singers harmonize / Til they can’t hear anything.” (I wrote more extensive reflections on this song, the album’s flagship single, here).
Likewise, “Bambina” notes, “No sign of injustice / No sign, but the flames are filling up the room / When the engines come, they always come too soon.” Again, it recognizes the dangers inherent in our search for a greater context, a relation to something bigger. Principally, this is the danger that we will be seduced by a false unity, Nuremberg Rallies and the collective approval of the deluded.
Crowds are sources of cheap and ready pseudo-meaning. They distill anger into a whirlwind of echoes that feels like belonging, but really isn’t. It does little to remedy the fundamental divisions and loneliness of the human heart. On a related note, Koenig, who is Jewish and apparently Buddhist, sings “My Christian heart cannot withstand / The thundering arena / I’ll see you when the violence ends / For now, ciao ciao Bambina.” I take the “thundering arena” to represent the emotional texture of life in America right now, a kind of mental and spiritual approximation of martyrdom and gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum. Koenig, quite sensibly, doesn’t have time for the hate and the sneering.
A vaguely apocalyptic atmosphere hangs around some of the songs. “How long til’ we sink to the bottom of the sea?” Koenig asks on “How Long?” In “Bambina,” he also says, “Can’t speak when the waves reach our house upon the dunes.” That connects with the ecological dimension of the greater field of interconnection, pointing towards the final fruits of our dissociation from one another, our retreat into subjective prison cells. To wit, collective destruction, the “unanimity of the grave.”
The poet John Wheelwright dreamed of “awakening into the astonished company of other men.” That seems to be the album’s social message as well – the dream of an ideal unity, in which difference and cultural exchange occur in a medium of love, with minimal friction.
Though time and tide wear us down, and political and personal fortunes shift, Father of the Bride, in the end, endorses this dream. Even though it’s shot through with irony, Koenig’s final duet with Danielle Haim, “We Go Together,” aims towards real reconciliation. The lovers who appeared on the first track are now trying to unite. They “go together like lions and lambs.” In the Bible, the book of Isaiah looks toward the end of history, in which “the lion lies down with the lamb,” and “none shall kill nor defile in all my holy mountain.” After passing through the turmoil of romantic complications and confronting the impermanence characteristic of existence – as on the song “Spring Snow” – one still wants to identify with the greater web of existence, wide enough to encompass, “Jerusalem, New York, and Berlin,” and surmount the world’s various divisions, from Kashmir to the West Bank.
I’m grateful for this album and for the opportunity to say something about it. Since my tendency is to focus on the lyrics, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the important contributions of the other band members, Chris Baio and Chris Thomson, who form a tight rhythm section, as always. A large roster of guests – from Danielle Haim to The Internet’s Steve Lacy and Koenig’s radio co-host, Jake Longstreth – all make essential contributions to the album.
In a time like ours, obsessed with polarities and engaged in perpetual demonization, Father of the Bride stands as a counterpoint. The field of human interrelation, which the album portrays, is as intricate as the hidden life in a honeycomb. Its crunchy, organic vibes beckon the listener, and offer a taste of a reality that transcends the titanic rage and mere irritation alternately boiling and simmering around us.