I was ready to trash this album after first listen. Lead single “Diane Young” has been a burr in my side ever since its release; it takes the chaotic, reel-through-the-streets feel of Contra single “Cousins” and makes it annoying. Subsequent singles “Step” and “Ya Hey” were good, but did not take the sting out of that annoying, high-to-low knob twisting that irritated me so greatly about “Diane Young” (especially since “Ya Hey” repeats the effect, albeit in a much more subtle fashion). I had scathing things to say about my first run-through of the full album – “apologism for Eighties AOR”, “grand, empty gestures a la the worst of U2”, “the more execrable parts of Paul Simon’s back catalog” – that sort of thing. A funny thing happened, then, when I looked over my notes: I discovered, after my usual calculations were finished, that the album merited a B. I did not feel a B when I listened to it, but upon further reflection it strikes me that what disappoints me about Modern Vampires Of The City is the same thing that disappoints me about Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Both albums are frothy, empty-handed, overtly ornamental middles bookended by some shockingly good tracks. The first three tracks of Modern Vampires Of The City are, honestly, top-notch Vampire Weekend songs. The opening track, “Obvious Bicycle”, kicks the album into the air with style, while “Unbelievers” and “Step” keep the proceedings feeling like both a progression and an inventory of where the band has been. Then “Diane Young” comes in and the whole thing comes crashing down to earth. Everything for the rest of the album up until “Ya Hey” reminds me painfully of a band of rich kids who, trying to make grand-sounding ideas with profound statements about modern existence come to life, end up with a middling collection of post-Pop U2 songs. The mid-tempo becomes excruciating. “Everlasting Arms” is particularly bad; it’s the sort of John Tesh-worthy track that anyone aspiring to “indie cred” would have been ashamed to have been caught listening to ten years ago. Today, in this post-“Beth/Rest” world, it passes as an artistic statement. Then “Ya Hey” comes along and saves the album, as does the strident following track “Hudson”, which marries a militant drum beat to an apocalyptic vision of a destroyed future Manhattan. “Ya Hey” shows the sort of growth and maturity that the rest of the album strives for but never quite achieves; where the rest of the album seems to treat its spirituality as a simple backdrop, “Ya Hey” has an adult conversation with the concepts of God in the thriving urban 21st Century. If only the vast middle had seen fit to have this same sort of conversation.
When Contra came out, it was de rigueur to refer to it as Vampire Weekend’s More Songs About Buildings And Food. It made sense; their self-titled debut was such an exciting burst of new and globally-embracing ideas that comparisons to Talking Heads ’77 were inevitable, and when the follow-up progressed towards maturity while keeping one foot in the past, the comparisons continued. I guess that really makes Modern Vampires Of The City the modern equivalent of Fear Of Music, which is okay, since I don’t like Fear Of Music all that much, either. Still, though, if the trend keeps up that means that the next album will be their Remain In Light, which is something fun to look forward to anyway. As it stands, though, I find it overblown and underdone; as I said earlier, though, I find the same of Sgt Pepper’s, so take that however you will.
FINAL MARK: B
(And again, don’t forget to visit http://www.trevorjameszaple.com and download a free excerpt of my first book, Disappearance. Maybe even buy it, if you like it.)