by Sam Buntz
If I had to make a flat, broad generalization about Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, I would say that the album’s lyrics are mainly about time. This is perhaps a nearly meaningless statement, and you could apply it to a lot of albums and movies and books. But I’m going to stick with it. Poets and songwriters have been raiding the “time-is-passing-so-what-are-we-gonna-do?” pantry for eons. If you were to tersely summarize the message of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” you would probably say, “Time is flying—so you should put out.” (Which, in a more Romantic vein, is the message of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” as well, itself similar to “Don’t Lie” off MVOTC.) Sometimes it seems like that’s the message of nearly 90% of 16th and 17th Century verse: Shakespeare, for one, was eternally preoccupied with time and all the things that “within its bending sickle’s compass come.” (Also, somewhat relevantly, Ezra Koenig, the principal lyricist for Vampire Weekend, is evidently a John Donne fan).
I could keep throwing out examples, but we’d be here all day: Donne, Shelley, Keats, Hardy, Dickinson, Larkin, the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, Dylan… Lamenting temporality while looking over your shoulder at whatever Eternity might lie hidden behind the scenes—that almost is poetry, and the essence of song. (In one of his poems about time, W.B. Yeats addresses the subject of poems about time, making much the same point: “What’s the meaning of all song? / ‘Let all things pass away.’”) We live in time, and its ravaging effects tend to be of universal interest. Even if some of us, due to peculiarities of socialization and culture, get circumcised or baptized or get discs inserted into our ear lobes and some of us don’t, sickness, old age, and death remain truly cross-cultural. The poet or songwriter usually suggests a solution or solutions to the time-is-flying problem, too. Lamentation only gets you so far. He or she might say that everything is impermanent, hurtling into the abyss, and therefore, you should do one of the following A). Marry me now, before we’re both dead, B). At least, let me get to third base, C). Go crazy, live it up, D). Accept the redeeming love of Christ, E). Accept the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha… And so on. Chicago (the band) once asked if anyone really knew about time, and MVOTC has plenty of digressions, retreats, half-guesses, and even tentative conclusions on the matter
More than two years after it’s release, Modern Vampires of the City continues to stand out. It isn’t going anywhere. It’s one of the few unambiguously permanent records of the past half-decade (to my mind, anyway). This is because its music is magnificently composed and produced, but also because its lyrics comprise a beautiful examination of how a thoughtful, roughly twenty-eight-year-old person might approach the “time-is-flying-what-we-gonna-do?” question in the present day. There are plenty of albums that I love, but find I can’t take the lyrics that seriously—especially from the last few years. But MVOTC is the complete package. I might go so far as to call it my favorite album, not just of the past half-decade, but of the 21st Century. It’s in the same weight-class as masterpieces like Songs in the Key of Life, Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On? It’s honestly that good. And, lyrically, there’s not really anything else like it, with its strange thematic blend: it’s an agnostic quest, an emotionally elevating tone poem addressed to doubt and anxiety.
Modern Vampires of the City takes its title from reggae artist Junior Reid’s “One Blood.” While Reid’s track is a fairly straightforward plea for human unity—echoing Bob Marley’s “One Love” in an intense, moving, and even somewhat desperate tonality—it begins with a cryptic image: “Modern vampires of the city / Hunting blood…” Vampire Weekend uses this image as a guiding metaphor for the entire album. “Modern vampires,” as I understand them, are doubts and fears that sap human energy, a battery of needless cares that can paralyze life, freezing it like a mosquito in the amber of anxiety. Instead of using time creatively, for love or music or what have you, you become a slave to “the slow click of a ticking clock.” Paraphrasing the literary critic Northrop Frye, you’re operating on “clock time” instead of “creative time”—a desperate situation. This mood is deepened by the cover art, which consists of a photo of the smoggiest day in New York’s history—since doubt, fear, and anxiety are all like smog. On the album, these vampires take multiple forms: worries about age and dying, worries about spiritual belief and unbelief, worries about the world situation and the savage pageant of history, mock-worries about being dissed by music snobs. Yet, while it begins on a note of strangely playful hopelessness, it ends on a note that could be described as, if not strictly hopeful, definitely not as beset by vampirism as earlier. As for the music itself, lyrics aside, it contains elements of reggae, hip-hop, Afro Pop, electric Dylan, traditional Scottish music, baroque classical, Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon—and probably a lot else besides.
The album begins with “Obvious Bicycle,” the title being a meaningless one, attached to the original, purely musical demo and predating the lyrics. It mixes simple Plastic Ono Band-style piano chords with sampled percussion from the Ras Michael track, “Keep Cool Babylon” (New York is Babylon, or part of it, as far as MVOTC is concerned. It’s a damned, majestic nexus of confusion). According to Rostam Batmanglij, the band’s multi-instrumentalist who co-produced the whole album and co-wrote the music with Koenig, the track was inspired by “Good News from Africa” by Dollar Brand. “Obvious Bicycle” sounds like an exhortation, but it’s the opposite. It’s urging you, or whomever the target is, to give up, to skip shaving this morning, because no one’s going to spare their time for you. It might be an insult directed at someone, specific or unspecific—but I prefer to take it in a broader way, like it really is addressing “you.” Koenig sings, “No one’s gonna watch you as you go / From a house you didn’t build and can’t control,” perfectly capturing the inner isolation of any twenty-something New Yorker, subject to uncontrolled rents and the vagaries of postmodern existence. So instead of asking “you” (whoever you are) to give the American Dream another go, it discourages you—before asking you, in the chorus, to do something else. It asks you, quite simply, to “listen.” Listen. And “don’t wait.”
The second track is the closest thing MVOTC had to a hit single, “Unbelievers.” Some people interpreted it as a New Atheist anthem, sonic Richard Dawkins, but it really isn’t. In an interview, Koenig explained that he was actually addressing the fact that everybody is, in somebody else’s eyes, an unbeliever, not just atheists specifically. Isn’t there some kind of fundamental consolation, some sort of healing balm, available to a person with a genuine sensitivity to life, but no real taste for stringent dogmas and sectarian divisions?
The song, under a charging Highway 61 Revisited organ, asks the question: “I’m not excited…but should I be? / Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me? / I know I love you, and you love the sea / But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?” The fact that the lead-singer loves the girl he’s addressing, and that she loves the sea, puts the lie to the hell-fire predicted by the world’s sundry dogmatists. There’s something real there, in that love, unsponsored by creedal faith though it is. And why can’t there be some sort of salvation implicit in it? This would be a salvation that isn’t written into any code, that isn’t even particularly defined. But it’s real, a drop of holy water anyone can drink. There’s an odd, air-like bridge in “Unbelievers”—it seems to sonically reference “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond,” which contains the famous lines, “O ye’ll tak’ the high-road and Ah’ll tak’ the low-road / And Ah’ll be in Scotland before ye.” The song itself takes the low-road, advocating humility before the mystery of the universe. It’s not trying to hem that mystery in with dogma, but it’s willing to let a sense of the sacred exist, without trying to define it. “Unbelievers” inaugurates the agnostic quest element of MVOTC, which will continue through to the end.
“Diane Young” is the album’s first direct meditation on time and mortality, and its second closest thing to a hit single. (The title is a pun on “Dying young.”) It uses pitch-shifting techniques, which, as Batmanglij observed, make Koenig sound both old and young, deepening and heightening his voice. Like another song, “Don’t Lie,” this one’s pleadingly addressed to a girl, trying to get her to slow down and not live quite so wild a life (oddly buttoned-down sub-messages on some of these): “Irish and proud, baby, naturally / But you got the luck of a Kennedy / So grab the wheel, keep on holding it tight / ’Til you’re tottering off into that good night.” The awareness of mortality should make you settle down, not speed up—though the prospect of dying young might not actually change your mind.
The next track is “Step”—a total masterpiece, in which sizable fragments of classical baroque and hip-hop seem like they were always meant to go together. And, somehow, the fusion is completely natural. In keeping with the greater themes of MVOTC, it’s a meditation on time and mortality, with some incidental commentary on contemporary arguments over music. The refrain comes from “Step to My Girl” by ’90s hip-hop group, Souls of Mischief: “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl.” In Vampire Weekend’s case, the girl in question seems to be the kind of music they make—some dick keeps stepping to her, i.e. criticizing their stuff. (Initially, after the release of their excellent debut album, there was an extended, somewhat violent argument in music criticism quarters over Vampire Weekend’s Afro Pop influences and preppy sartorial choices—though that seems like ancient history at this point). In this sense, too, maybe it’s slightly reminiscent of “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common…
While the band trucks fairly heavily in the Cryptic, “Step” is even harder to peg than most of the other songs on the album. Koenig dismisses critics, noting that “Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife,” and that “punks who would laugh when they saw us together […] didn’t know how to dress for the weather.” But then he starts reflecting on aging, putting the squabbles over relevant music into the context of a discussion of impermanence, more generally: “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth / Age is an honor—it’s still not the truth / We saw the stars when they hid from the world / You cursed the sun when it stepped to your girl / Maybe she’s gone and I can’t resurrect her / The truth is she doesn’t need me to protect her / We know the true death, the true way of all flesh / Everyone’s dying – but girl you’re not old yet.”
After “Step” comes “Don’t Lie”. It’s a “gather ye rosebuds while ye may / for tomorrow we’ll be a’dying” kind of song, but whereas Robert Herrick’s poem is advocating an ostensibly cheerful, make-hay-and-get-laid-while-the-sun-shines philosophy, “Don’t Lie” seems a little less comfortable with this. The singer is trying to convince a girl to dump her boyfriend and bring it home for the real thing. Like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or Marvell’s poem mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the singer tries to use a vision of impending mortality to seduce a girl: “I want to know, does it bother you— / The slow click of a ticking clock? / There’s a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know.” In a less morbid register, Koenig sings, “Young hearts need the pressure to pound / So hold me close my baby.” While I can’t recommend this seduction tactic to anyone—it’s probably not effective—it’s good materia poetica. Also, the sense of being haunted by the ticking of a clock, of time being utterly wasted, feeds directly into the message of the next song.
“Hannah Hunt” is, in my view, the central track on the album. It’s one of my two personal favorites (the other is “Ya Hey”), partly because it’s simply beautiful, and partly because it really blows open the album’s doubts and anxieties. It suggests an escape—“Hannah Hunt” points toward the hidden drop of holy water that the singer couldn’t find in “Unbelievers.” The song is, as Koenig described it, a kind of “mystical country song” describing a road trip between two lovers. (Apparently, Koenig actually knew a girl named Hannah Hunt, in his Tibetan Buddhism class at Columbia, and just borrowed her name for the song’s purposes.) The American landscape comes alive as the two protagonists journey from the east to the west: “A gardener told me some plants move, but I could not believe him / ’Til me and Hannah Hunt saw crawling vines and weeping willows / As we made our way from Providence to Phoenix.” Somewhere in America, the narrator says that “a man of faith” insisted that “hidden eyes could see what I was thinking”—but he (the singer) smiled and “told him that was only true of Hannah / As we glided on through Waverly and Lincoln.” So, he rejects the external conception of Deity-as-a-snoop (like a Tibetan Buddhist), but there’s still something strange and transcendent happening between human beings in love.
The key lines to the song, and maybe to the whole album, come with the chorus: “Our days were long, our nights no longer / Count the seconds, watching hours / Though we live on the U.S. dollar / You and me, we got our own sense of time.” There’s a difference between this and the message of “Don’t Lie” and “Step.” In those songs, time was purely an engine of destruction—but here, it’s a pleasure to count the seconds and watch the hours. “Time is money,” and the pair are forced, of necessity, to live off this everyday, currency-oriented kind of time, but they attain their “own sense of time” by just being with each other and experiencing what’s there. To indulge another quotation from a poet, Wallace Stevens once wrote: “Out of this same light, out of the central mind / We make a dwelling in the evening air / In which being there together is enough.” I think something similar is going on in Koenig’s lyrics.
At the end of “Hannah Hunt” the song bursts into a final reiteration of the chorus, accompanied by instrumentation that really does have the feel of “a mystical country song” (like Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music”). The chorus is altered in its first two lines: “If I can’t trust you, then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer, / Though we live on the U.S. dollar, / You and me, we got our own sense of time.” Having your own, or a new sense of time is thus the answer to the problems posed on the album’s other songs, obsessed as they are by that ghostly, ticking clock. If that won’t help, then nothing will. Plus, isn’t music itself really a way of developing a new sense of time, of sonically embellishing a succession of moments, elevating them out of the mundane sphere? Following Northrop Frye again, in art and in love, consciousness triumphs over “clock time,” making time creative and wholly worthwhile. It transforms each second into a radiant jewel. (Also, the idea that lovers have the capacity to forget about time is not an uncommon one in poetry and music, after all. As Bob Dylan sings to one of his muses in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”—“I could stay with you forever and never realize the time.” In such a state, the slow ticking of a clock can’t bother you anymore.)
Next come a series of songs that interweave the political, the religious, and the personal. As Koenig describes them, they examine the relations between individuals and things that are greater than the individual: political and ecclesiastical institutions, and God, particularly. “Everlasting Arms” expresses some of the same agnostic difficulties as “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey” (to be discussed shortly). Koenig tells God, or religion as an institution: “Oh, I was born to live without you / But I’m never gonna understand, never understand.” The security of a comprehensive religion might solve some of the speaker’s problems, but he’s too much a child of unbelief to really buy any of them. To again draw a parallel with classic poetry (sorry—it’s a curse), we can look to Yeats: “I—though heart might find relief / Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief / What seems most welcome in the tomb –Play a pre-destined part. / Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.” Yet remaining in uncertainty doesn’t seem to help the speaker, which is part of his acknowledged difficulty. “Everlasting arms” could protect you from the terror of death, made more real ever since you, “Looked up, full of fear / Trapped beneath the chandelier / That’s going down”—as well as liberating you from the dark cocoon of egotism: “I hummed the ‘Dies Irae’ as you played the Hallelujah / Leave me to myself, don’t leave me in myself.”
“Finger Back” is probably the most violent song on the album—also, the most overtly political—which is funny, given how catchy it is. You wouldn’t think lyrics like, “Bend my finger back, snap / Wrap it in a paper towel” could be sung in an essentially upbeat way, but they are. Without getting too explicit, Koenig examines the emotions and attitudes behind the Israel-Palestine conflict, though the implications extend to other areas of the world, as well, obviously. One of the song’s best lines is, “Listen to the evidence exonerating me from being right”—skewering any number of polemics in one swift movement. “Finger Back” fully captures the tension between a naturally humane disposition and existential fear, vying in so many people: “Remembrances of holy days in Tarrytown and Rye / I don’t want to live this way, but I don’t want to die / Remembrances of generous hearts that couldn’t bear to try / I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” The song has some decent comic relief, though—an amusing spoken-word interlude about an Orthodox Jewish girl who falls in love with a guy who works at a falafel shop: “Should she have merely averted her eyes and gazed at the laminated poster of the Dome of the Rock?”
Back in the mode of agnostic quest, we find “Worship You”—a song, which, along with the following track, “Ya Hey,” is addressed directly to God (specifically the Biblical God; Koenig’s Jewish, by the way). Somehow, the chorus of “Worship You” reminds me of the Psalm-inspired, Rastafarian hymn “By the Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians (found on the famous The Harder They Come soundtrack). Here’s Vampire Weekend: “We worshipped you, / Your red right hand / Won’t we see you once again? / In foreign soil, in a foreign land, / Who will guide us through the end?” And here’s The Melodians, “Because the wicked / Carried us away in captivity / Required from us a song / How can we sing King Alpha’s song / In a strange land?” (The Melodians call God “King Alpha” in reference to the Biblical idea that he’s “the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end.) Both speak from a position of exile and longing, but, in Koenig’s case, I think the lyrics aren’t meant to express the longings of Jews in the Diaspora, exclusively or particularly. (The spirit of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics is usually more expansively cosmopolitan). Overall, I think they’re meant to express the longing of humanity for anything Greater-Than-Us. The exile isn’t physical, isn’t so much being kept out of a literal promised land. It’s about inhabiting the modern state-of-mind and dealing with an honest inability to escape uncertainty. The God with a “red right hand”—a wrathful, warrior Deity—seems more than a little suspect to Koenig and to any humane sensibility. But it would be nice to have a plot assigned to life, some golden thread to pull you through the maze.
“Ya Hey”—along with “Hannah Hunt,” one of my two favorites from the album—takes “Worship You” and makes its theme more personal. It’s a direct confrontation between the singer and God, an agnostic hymn, a sublime “What gives?” Koenig states his own dilemma, and the Creator’s: “Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything… / America don’t love you / So I could never love you / In spite of everything.” The so-called righteous and the unrighteous both have no real love for God: they’re either following rules or breaking rules, but there’s no authentic devotion present. Also, this isn’t a particularly carefree form of agnosticism. Its troubled, haunted by “the lingering scent of divinity” (to rip a phrase from Cormac McCarthy). Koenig continues: “In the dark of this place / There’s the glow of your face / There’s the dust on the screen / Of this broken machine / And I can’t help but feel / That I’ve made some mistake / But I let it go.” Crazy chipmunk voices start chanting a version of the Biblical God’s name, “Ya Hey, Ya Hey…”—in a mad, inspired reversal of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” The singer puts the question roundly, “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?” The fire and the flames aren’t just the combustion of the burning bush, from which God addresses Moses. They seem to be a representation of the forces that cause human suffering, more generally—fires in the crematories of Auschwitz and the Killing Fields of Cambodia and Rwanda.
The song never really reconciles itself to that “lingering scent of divinity,” but it also never fully detaches. In another spoken word interlude, Koenig hears God as a cosmic DJ, spinning the world from an Age of Faith represented by reggae pioneer Desmond Dekker, into an era of confusion represented by the Rolling Stones: “Outside the tents, on the festival grounds / As the air began to cool, and the sun went down / My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound / Of you spinning ‘Israelites’ / Into ‘19th Nervous Breakdown.’” This is more necessary levity, but its still part of the tension, the unresolved state of the song’s questions and anxieties. Its what makes MVOTC so relevant, so directly pertinent to the times, since it speaks to the honest and perturbed questioning of many people. While we see plenty of religious votaries who are utterly content with the concept of hellfire and judgment, and plenty of New Atheists who are utterly content with a universe devoid of purpose, it’s rarer to hear a voice that’s simply eager to know what’s going on (cosmically speaking) but can’t really find the ground required to make a stand, one way or the other. There have been great rock albums written from a position of passionate—and compassionate—religiosity, like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and any number of Bob Marley albums. But MVOTC’s tensions, the unresolved nature of its issues and debates, grant it a unique energy. Few bands have ever captured quite the same vibe.
The second-to-last song on the album, “Hudson,” is almost as overtly political as “Finger Back.” It envisions a post-apocalyptic New York, part of an America ravaged by the nightmare of history, unable to escape the specters of past violence that continually crowd the land. The various empires that have ruled the world keep changing the map, while generations of soldiers lie in coffins, wrapped in flags: “Over and over again, all these never-ending visions / Over and over again like a prize that’s changing hands / The time has come, / The clock is such a drag / All you who change your stripes can wrap me in the flag.” The final version of the chorus changes some of the lines: “The lines are drawn, / The map is such a drag / All you who changed your stripes can wrap me in the flag.” Time and space are both a “drag,” both comprising the playground of destructive and dehumanizing powers. And the apparition of “clock time”—time as purely a force for dissolution—returns. We actually hear a ticking clock in the song itself, as time is made brutally palpable.
But the bleakest track on the album gives way to a final, essentially hopeful song, “Young Lion.” It consists of just one, repeated line, nested in a gentle musical setting: “You take your time, Young Lion.” Apparently, Koenig was inspired by an encounter with an elderly Rasta who basically gave him the line, actually saying, “Take your time, Young Lion,” when he was in the midst of picking up coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. If you take your time, the modern vampires can’t suck you dry, because you’ve converted time into an ally, a canvas for creativity and exploration, as opposed to a locked cell, crowded with worries. MVOTC doesn’t exactly end on a note of resolution, but there’s peace, there’s a sense that it’s all right. In a way, “Young Lion” makes us recall “Hannah Hunt.” You get time itself to move to a different rhythm, instead of being enthralled to a pointless procession of minutes and hours.
Modern Vampires of the City continues to resonate with me so strongly, because it seems to distill some of the persistent conflicts I see around me, in a manner mercifully free of cant and self-seriousness. I like plenty of contemporary indie and not-so-indie bands, but few present a vision so searching, so engaged with greater issues. Vampire Weekend manages to mix attitudes ironic and humane, comical and serious, in a way that few others can. Personally, I think only Jeff Tweedy and maybe one or two other present-day rock lyricists are in the same ballpark as Koenig, and Batmanglij, as a producer and a composer, is morphing into a kind of latter-day, non-insane version of Phil Spector. The rhythm section, comprised of drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, is one of the very best in rock—which is important, considering how rhythmically driven so much of V.W.’s music is. They’re as essential to the finished creation as Koenig’s lyrics and vocals and Batmanglij’s multi-instrumentalism and production.
It’s hard to say where they’ll go from here, and I have absolutely no idea how to begin speculating. Their first three albums form so definite a trilogy—with Modern Vampires of the City offering a truly towering conclusion—that it’s extremely difficult to predict how a new beginning might sound. But when you’ve got your own sense of time, there’s a future… and perhaps even an answer.