This essay is running as part of the 2019 Uproxx Music Critics Poll. Explore the results here.
Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig often seems like a man who’s never had an unreasonable thought or feeling in his life, and is always thinking about everything from as many angles as possible in an effort to be fair to all. This mix of generosity and intellectual flexibility is a big part of what makes him an intriguing character, both as a songwriter and as the host of his Beats1 internet radio show Time Crisis. But it’s also something that narrows the emotional range of his work somewhat, as all emotional extremes are kept in check by his cerebral tendencies and hyper-awareness of how anything he might say could be interpreted.
This could be a liability in some cases, but on this year’s Father Of The Bride (which comes in at No. 4 on the Uproxx Music Critics Poll), his unapologetically mature and unwaveringly reasonable approach to singing about the nuances of relationships and the complications of life in a deeply unreasonable world felt like a much-needed respite from a seemingly endless onslaught of anxious, nihilistic music in practically every genre. He’s not a contrarian, but he is the guy who’s here to try to put all this angst in perspective.
Father Of The Bride is not a particularly cheerful or optimistic album. There is joy and there is hope in its songs, but all of that is in the context of bigger things — capitalism, privilege, politics, history – that put an asterisk on every pleasure. “Harmony Hall,” the album’s first single and statement of purpose, is about the frustration of trying to live a life within institutions you know to be corrupt, and figuring out how complicit you are just by existing in a society where those institutions are the only game in town.
Despite that subject matter, “Harmony Hall” isn’t all nervous hand-wringing. The music draws mainly on chill country and soul vibes from the ‘70s, and the tone is more philosophical than angry or anxious. The conclusions are bleak – “every time a problem ends, another one begins” — and it leaves Koenig reaching back to recontextualize a lyric from the previous Vampire Weekend album as a way of expressing the quandary of the song: “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.”
The rest of the songs on Father Of The Bride can be broken down like pro/con lists of reasons to not want to “live like this” and reasons to not want to die. Most of the reasons in the latter column are tied to romance and relationships, but his love songs focus on the work and compromises that go into maintaining these things. There’s a warmth to these songs, but also a sense that Koenig is running a cost-benefit analysis on his emotional life. Can he endure the blows to his ego in “How Long?” enough to not spoil his affection for someone he loves? Can he be patient in “2021,” or forgiving in “Unbearably White”? Is the notion that he and his partner “belong together” actually undermined by the understanding that “baby, it don’t mean we’ll stay together”?
“Stranger,” the most joyful love song on the record by far, is the one grounded in a small moment of Koenig allowing himself to just enjoy being in the presence of his partner Rashida Jones and her sister Kidada on a pleasant evening. It’s a song about recognizing what you want and need when you finally find it, and in this case it’s kindness, family, and shaking off neuroses. It’s track 16 on an album of 18 songs, and it’s the emotional climax of it all. He wants to live like this. But even the song about getting out of one’s head is zooming out for the big picture, as Koenig lightly paraphrases the chorus of New Order’s hit “Regret” and reflects on how someone so close to him now was once a stranger to him.
Father Of The Bride is just as much a musical outlier in 2019 as it is a thematic one. Koenig has always specialized in a robust melodicism out of step with the more rhythmically severe and harmonically minimalist music of this past decade, but this record pushes his music beyond the prim formalism of his first three albums in collaboration with Rostam Batmanglij and towards a more expansive palette that draws on long-uncool aesthetics from jam bands and fusion.
The nods to the Grateful Dead and Phish have been noted by critics and fans, but the composition and production owe more to the dry, pristine audio and the abundance of expert session players that were the hallmark of ‘70s pop. The current iteration of Vampire Weekend as a live band includes original drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio along with several other hired guns, but on this record Koenig is operating not unlike Steely Dan in the late ‘70s, with every song performed by session aces, with Danielle Haim serving as his rough equivalent of Michael McDonald and Steve Lacy as a sort of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Koenig’s sincere fascination with the Dead is well-documented on Time Crisis, but ultimately he’s got a lot more in common with Steely Dan — he’s a similar sort of wry intellectual, and his songwriting only gets more tightly composed even as he’s emulating bands known for their exploratory looseness.
There’s an interesting push-and-pull between Koenig’s outlier status and his desire to belong to a larger musical and cultural community, both on Father Of The Bride and on Time Crisis. Along with Haim and Lacy, Koenig’s collaborators on the album include Ariel Rechtshaid, Dave 1 from Chromeo, Mark Ronson, BloodPop, DJ Dahi, and Jenny Lewis, and songs quote or interpolate music by iLoveMakonnen, Hans Zimmer, and Japanese composer Haruomi Hosono. Koenig’s curiosity and interest in culture defines a lot of who he is, and it’s a crucial difference from Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who always viewed the music of their contemporaries with some degree of contempt. The musical and lyrical ideas on Father Of The Bride aren’t meant to contrary or condescending to the mainstream of music in the late 2010s, but instead are meant to be additive to the discourse. It’s all coming from a personal place, but there’s a hope of moving things forward and bringing new things to the conversation.
It’s hard to say what, if any, impact this music will have on other artists. It could be that Koenig is off on his own trip, and he’s only really engaging with devoted, self-selecting Vampire Weekend and Time Crisis heads from here on out. There are certainly worse fates, and it seems that at least part of Koenig’s fixation on the Grateful Dead and Phish is in admiring their large fandoms which exist outside of the whims of pop culture. But it would be nice if more people recognized this work as a path away from the exaggerated hopelessness and extended adolescence at the center of music culture now, and towards a more adult version of pop that seeks to dismantle anxiety rather than wallowing in it.