One of Dickens’ antagonists, Ralph Nickelby, boasts he is a man never moved by a pretty face, for he always sees the grinning skull beneath. It’s a vision whose austerity is meant to be an attribute—a steely verisimilitude which prides itself on seeing through all such delicate coverings. But it must be a very poor realism that can’t see the pretty girl staring it in the face.
Fortunately for us, Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij, the primary songwriters for the band Vampire Weekend, are no Ralph Nickelbys. Their latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, is no nihilistic gutter crawl through a world devoid of meaning. It is, in fact, frequently joyous and relentlessly buoyant. But neither has the band “found religion,” despite the spiritual imagery and themes in their latest. Instead, the lyrical thrust of the album captures the experience of many college-educated, twentysomethings in the city emblazoned on the cover: a smoggy, slightly-retro, slightly-futuristic New York. Heaped upon itself, only partially visible through a mist made of humanity’s greed and ambition, the city becomes us: an existential muddle, alive to ironies, unsure about dogma, unsure even about our unsure-ity, possessing an aversion to strict dichotomies yet full of longing, full, at times, even of faith, drawn by turns to the old and new. It’s the skull and the girl, all in one, but without the assurance that anybody knows what either of those facts really mean.
First, the skull. Death and the inevitable passing of time infuse nearly every track on the album. “Diane Young” elaborates on the homophonous pun in its title by managing to reference both the Bruce and Dylan Thomas (“So grab the wheel, keep on holding it tight / ‘Til you’re tottering off into that good night”). Koenig plaintively asks on “Don’t Lie” if “the low click of a ticking clock” bothers you, since “there’s a headstone right in front of you / and everyone I know.” (“Bother” puts it mildly, one might say.) The ambitious “Step” dons the mantle of elderly wisdom to intone: “We know the true death—the true way of all flesh / Everyone’s dying.” Absent are the wispy impressionistic vignettes of earlier albums in favor of a more direct lyricism that somehow manages to traffic compellingly in ideas and less in recounted experiences.
Not that direct means unambiguous or simplistic. Koenig and Batmanglij are too subtle a pair of lyricists to allow their songs to be straightjacketed into singular readings. Lines are undoubtedly chosen for their multiplicity of understandings. Take, for example, “I was made to live without you,” from “Everlasting Arms.” If the “you” is understood as God—which the title suggests, referring to the 19th century hymn—then this could be a simple expression of evolutionary logic: no divine intelligence, no “you” to live for. Or perhaps, more cannily, “made” here follows the secondary meaning of “forced” or “led,” as though society has (wrongly?) influenced the narrator into discarding the idea of a divine being as a meaningful premise for existence. But let’s be honest: it’s just as likely about a really, really bad breakup.
Such purposeful ambiguity speaks to a sense of craft and intentionality that is missing in the earlier two albums. In the press, members of the band have cultivated the notion of the three albums as a trilogy, with themes developing and maturing as the artists have aged. A bildungsroman for our time—from the carefree college days of their self-titled debut, to the worldly travels of Contra, to the purposeful and denser Modern Vampires of the City. It’s a neat narrative, but it’s also one without any real resolution. Fittingly, the album was first announced in The New York Times’ Lost and Found section—as unresolvable an existential conundrum as any, if taken literally. Many press outlets have noted an evasiveness from the band when asked what it means. Pitchfork says Koenig and Batmanglij are “scrupulous and cautious” as though “each Vampire Weekend song and artifact comes along with its own little puzzle”; The Guardian’s interviewer calls them “pretty circumspect” and “suspicious…second-guess[ing] our queries.” Meaning always hides, it would appear, just like our lads from the Upper West Side.
Instead, we get longing. That great and terrible longing—the soul-thirst that poses questions to divine beings only half-believed-in, that sees the possibility of something beyond the world in the world. It’s the pretty girl that is no less than a grinning skull but is possibly something much more.
Koenig implores so sweetly in the aforementioned “Everlasting Arms” to be held in “your everlasting arms,” even as death like a chandelier comes crashing down. He sings of the Dies Irae used in the Funeral Mass, and pleads, in words similar to C.S. Lewis’ concept of discipleship as a kind of dying to live a truer version of the self, “Lead me to myself / Don’t leave me in myself.” He asks, in various tracks, “Who will guide us through the end?” and “Who’s going to say a little grace for me?” He speaks of “never-ending visions” and of Milton’s “red right hand” of the Lord. And in “Unbelievers” he sees holy waters everywhere yet wonders if any “contain a little drop for me.”
But the biggest thrill, for the religious listener, is the dubby “Ya Hey,” with its direct references to Exodus 3 and its implicit sympathy for a God who has love for everyone even if it’s mostly unrequited. A marvel of referential compression, the chorus puns off the unpronounceable personal name of the Lord and Outkast’s famous song (you know the one) with swinging confidence, evoking wistfulness for a God “who won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am.” It’s hard not to get a sense of respect for Jewish tradition here, and I suspect those who see this song as an attempt to knock the Big Guy down a notch are badly mistaken. (Note that the Steve Buscemi-directed videos for the album tend to put the lyrics to the fore by pasting them in large letters in front of moving images of New York City. Yet the mutant chirping that sings the name of God demurely gets but a single question mark.)
The concept of a God who won’t even say his name seems to fit the album’s millennial unease. After all, an unknowable God is one that makes no demands. It’s an empty signifier to be filled with whatever passions hold us in their grip. But such a situation soon grows intolerable. Contradictions and questions inevitably assert themselves. And indeed the sense of being mistaken about the holy, even with its demands and humiliations, leads to what may be Vampire Weekend’s circa-2013 version of the prayer in Mark 9:24: “ I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die.”
“I can’t relate to any ways of thinking that divide the world into two distinct parts,” Koenig tells the music magazine NME. “There’s all these false dichotomies in the world that can be very confusing…I’ve always had an extreme dislike of these false choices you’re presented with.” Rather than the skull or the pretty girl, Modern Vampires of the City’s reasonable impulse is to see the two together as one. Listening to it all, one wonders if Koenig and Batmanglij finally show their hand for a moment by lifting the album title from the opening lines of Junior Reed’s reggae track “One Blood.” Do the boys from Columbia agree with the singer from Kingston that red blood, the common mark of our humanity, can really cover over the “false dichotomies” which plague and divide us? (See the patois-chant of “blood” on “Finger Back.”) Ever referential, it would be supremely fitting if Vampire Weekend’s latest located a balm for the metaphysical incongruities of modern life in the same place—a vein.
For my part, I’m not so sure if the skull and the pretty girl, if alienation and transcendence, can be reconciled so easily. A stronger tonic may be needed. But blood!—they’re on to something there. In fact, it reminds me of another sanguinary song I heard somewhere: “O precious is the flow / That makes me white as snow…”