When Vampire Weekend announced its new album, Modern Vampires of the City, singer-songwriter Ezra Koenig described it as “darker” and “more organic.” And, as the black-and-white album cover suggests, it is darker: Aging and the passing of time are all over the album. You might have guessed that from the single, which paired “Diane Young” (a pun on “dyin’ young”) with “Step,” a song whose chorus begins, “The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out.” If not, it’s abundantly clear by the time you get to penultimate track, “Hudson,” which describes the lonely fate of explorer Henry Hudson, samples a ticking clock, and might be the first Vampire Weekend song to actually have anything to do with vampires.
Is the album also “more organic”? Not on the first few listens. Instead, it sounds like a deliberate effort to take the band out of its comfort zone. Working for the first time with Ariel Rechtshaid, a producer known for everything from Justin Bieber’s “Thought of You” to Usher’s great “Climax,” the band consciously set out to mix things up. The album is wall-to-wall with piano and church choirs, and the vocals are alternately auto-tuned, pitched up like chipmunk voices, and pitched down, chopped-and-screwed-style. It’s a change, but a natural one for a group whose principle songwriters, Koenig and keyboardist-producer Rostam Batmanglij, have worked with acts like Das Racist and Major Lazer, who have made use of these tools themselves. Back in 2009, Batmanglij even did an all auto-tune album of his own.
Vampire Weekend controversially made its name by appropriating Congolese dance rhythms and other aspects of African music, but here they seem to have turned mostly to sources closer to home. “Finger Back” sounds at first like a song by San Francisco indie rockers The Dodos—though by its shout-along climax it could be confused with Animal Collective. “Everlasting Arms” has Koenig channeling Chris Keating from Yeasayer, another Brooklyn band, while bassist Chris Baio mimics Sting on “Roxanne.” “Worship You” reaches all the way back to the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” As always, the band isn’t hiding its influences: As Koenig has discussed in interviews, “Step” lifts overtly from both YZ’s “Who’s That Girl” and Bread’s “Aubrey” (by way of jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr.), creating an infectious combination neither could have imagined.
The band’s last album debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard charts. Working with Rechtshaid, they’re presumably aiming to top the charts again. But with songs about aging and faith—not just “Ya Hey” but “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms,” and “Worship You”—and sources as diverse as hip-hop, jazz, and Bread, they’re doing it their own way. They’re growing older, and sounding new again.
You can hear Modern Vampires of the City in full on iTunes.