Willie Reviews Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride”

Willie Reviews Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride”

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Vampire Weekend returns after six years with a massive thing of an album called “Father of the Bride.” Ezra Koenig and the band sound largely comfortable and manage to pull off an astonishing number of effective ballads over 18 tracks. The globe on the cover feels inflatable, and it guides the album on a tour of pleasurable music. RPM’s review:

 

If you go searching for the subtext of a large wedding, you’ll find plenty. Often, it’s an aggressively public proclamation of love that temporarily reveals the two participants as larger than life. The wedding’s bigness devours everything around it until it disappears in a flash. All of a sudden, the weddingers are back on Earth. A wedding has a brand that’s carefully controlled, and underneath it, there are hopes and wishes and feelings of unworthiness. How can two normal people possibly match the size of the wedding they’ve tacked themselves to? All you can hope for is to match keep up until its over with.

Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend’s fourth album and first since 2013, is a wedding album in this sense. It’s an ultra-clean piece of production that delights in its lyrical subtext while being the biggest rock album of the year so far. It has the anticipation of a wedding announcement and the follow through of a beachside ceremony with meek, white-haired relatives dressed in tan suits. How clean is it? It’s so blindingly clean that I had to turn off the blue light filter on my computer. It’s so clean that I dusted my room during and after listening to it. It’s so clean that even the studio chatter sounds like it was done in multiple takes. And despite being filled with contentment and happiness, it’s curious and kooky and full of the band’s weirdness.

 

 

It makes sense that the production is tight; Ezra Koenig and the band’s attraction to tight sounds and clean lines are no secret. But album’s packaging and marketing materials are marked by the ubiquitous stamp of “SONY MUSIC.” The logo is watermarked onto the cover of the album and many of its accompanying videos. “Yes, that’s their record label,” you say. “Of course it’s there.” But it isn’t 1959 and record labels no longer have precedent to sign their name squarely on the center of the packaging. Beyond that, the music video for “This Life” features “SONY MUSIC” as a static mark on a largely white screen. It’s over the top and eyebrow-raising  at the very least. I think the branding makes a good complement for Vampire Weekend’s spirit on the album. They are committed to producing music far outside themselves. In order for them to reach their massive audience, they had to play ball with the Sony, and along the way it became clear that their music was defined by its place in the music industry. It’s a hilarious, self-aware touch and a request that Sony Music can’t very well refuse. So it’s there and it’s very weird. Perhaps the “wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified” from “Harmony Hall” is another jab. The album shows a willingness to hang with the snakes right up until the breaking point—just long enough until the album is polished.

The themes of “Father of the Bride” skew toward difficult relationships, easy relationships, and earnest human connection. When you go to make a hit record about these things, these ideas are loosed from your own brain and find a new life in the studio. Very personal ideas expand outward into wild feats of production. “Stranger,” from the back half of the album, describes Ezra hearing the sounds of other people around him and feeling comforted by their presence. It’s willing to sacrifice some of the non-transferable personal feeling for its final sheen. The song has that jubilant Paul Simon sound and features a fearless saxophone. That’s an accomplishment in its own right. It works, and we’re meant to listen to the veneer of the song and work backward to the kernel at the center. So many of the album’s melodies sound new and inspired, and Koenig delivers inspired concepts. There are 18 tracks, which may be pushing it, but there’s enough to hang onto in each to prevent it from becoming a slog. Other times on the album, Koenig duets with Danielle Haim (of Haim) in the sweetest way. It brings out another layer of separation between the origination in the songwriter’s mind and its final execution, but the intimacy of two voices singing for the joy of it is enough to temper any cynicism.

Vampire Weekend - Harmony Hall (Official Video)

The band really succeeds when it hits that sensitive spot in the chest of the listener—the “I’m listening in my room and Ezra is speaking to me” spot. “How Long” gets at that in a hurry. Distances feel shorter in 2019 than 2008, but our world is expanding. Everything seems equidistant and unimportant. Koenig sings, “What’s the point of human beings? / A Sharpie face on tangerines / Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” We’re all consuming the same culture in different spaces and still it’s tough to overlap with any other most of the time. “2021” samples a Haruomi Hosono tape that was recommended to me on Youtube a thousand times, and I assume it was also recommended to Ezra Koenig. That weird coincidence brought about by the algorithm is a uncomfortable connection, but an intriguing one. The songs consistently comment on the chasm between me and him, or me and my neighbor, or me and “SONY MUSIC.”

Still, the album teases that global feeling and everything in it. It’s littered with references not only to the globe, but also to animals, critters and microbes. Birds hum between songs and crickets chirp, so what is the place of nature in Vampire Weekend’s world? It’s there, but it will always take second place to the band. No natural thing can overwhelm what Vampire Weekend has put together. Life exists as a function of Vampire Weekend. There’s no room for the whims of animals within an album as carefully produced as this. Like so many of the band’s virtual collaborators, when animals are referenced and made the subject or used as a bit of ambience, Koenig’s voice skims over the top. When “Rich Man” samples S.E. Rogie for witty lyrical jabs, it draws the original into the universe of the album and doesn’t let go.

Making a successful rock album in 2019 demands a hyper-awareness and a willingness to refer—to refer to the hopeful rock of the 1970s, to the ballads of the 80s, and to the slick surface of the late 00s. Every tone and style is available for the band to reference. It is a combination of these that give the album weight beyond the production. The songwriting is based in something earnest, and if after 17 songs you remain skeptical, “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” will likely put your mind at ease. You might feel like it’s your wedding day, whatever that means.

Score: Grilling up some veggies in Cal-i-forn-i-a!

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