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When we last heard from Ezra Koenig, he was guiding Vampire Weekend through its “black-and-white album cover with the songs about death” period on the band’s beloved third album, 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City. And then, having made his acknowledged masterpiece, Koenig went off and made other things — including a cultish Netflix show and a family with the actress and writer Rashida Jones. Indie music, of course, changed dramatically in the meantime. For a while, it seemed as though Vampire Weekend might never come back. More crucially, it didn’t necessarily seem like the band needed to come back.
And yet here Vampire Weekend is, with their first new album in six years, Father Of The Bride. One of the many small miracles of this lovely and wise comeback album is that it doesn’t feel like it was made by a guy in his mid-thirties pretending like he’s still a fresh-faced, post-collegiate twentysomething. Rather than reviving a remnant of his old, indie-famous life, Koenig has brought Vampire Weekend into the smaller, more intimate confines of his current family-man existence.
Whereas Koenig once wrote endlessly about how young people represent (or misrepresent) themselves to the outside world — “Why would you lie about anything at all?” from 2008’s “Oxford Comma,” remains the mission statement of Vampire Weekend’s early work — his new songs are framed as private conversations among people who know each other too well to hide behind curated facades. At some point, you have no choice but to be all of the things you refused to be as a younger person: vulnerable, sentimental, dependent on the love of others. It can be a dangerous — and wonderful — place to be in life. “Hoping for kindness was my biggest mistake,” Koenig sings in “My Mistake.” What’s left unspoken is that hope is still all we have.
In a way, after having now heard Father Of The Bride, it makes perfect sense why it took Vampire Weekend so long to make a sequel to Modern Vampires Of The City. Thankfully, the delay wasn’t due to a lack of musical inspiration — Vampire Weekend remains as big-eared as ever, juxtaposing sounds and ideas that clash like mustard and chocolate on paper and yet somehow achieve intuitive alchemy as music. Take “Hold You Now,” a plaintive folk-country (!) number featuring Danielle Haim that includes a sample from Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line (!!) while also evoking Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s winsome early-’00s break-up ballad “Picture” (!!!). That is an especially batty edition of MadLibs, not a song that should make a lick of sense. And yet the execution of Father Of The Bride feels as natural and cozy as an overstuffed chair on an enclosed porch.
So, yes, Father Of The Bride is a domestic album. A mature album. An album made by and for adults, about what happens when you don’t die young (or “Diane Young”) and have to find a way to negotiate a more settled life. I realize that all of this might make some people recoil. It’s true that Vampire Weekend has aged into a dad-rock band. The jam-band indulges of “Harmony Hall” have already been well-documented, but the bluesy guitar tone on “Unbearably White” sounds unmistakably like John Mayer. Elsewhere, the unplugged numbers resemble not the Graceland pastiches of old, but the witty and fatalistic ruminations of Paul Simon’s 2010s albums. Fair warning: The upwardly mobile millennials who grew up on Vampire Weekend records that seamlessly synthesized the most forward-thinking elements of “hip” early 21st century indie-pop might feel slightly … middle-aged after hearing Father Of The Bride.
But while some will detect the haunting echoes of their own lost youth on this album, for Vampire Weekend it feels like a sonic and thematic progression. I keep returning to “Rich Man,” a gentle slow-dance number that samples a delectable, late-night soul-stirrer by the great Sierra Leone guitarist S.E. Rogie. (The title could be a subliminal callback to the tired privilege debates that shouted down Vampire Weekend’s otherwise gentle and ingratiating music after their blockbuster debut.) In the song, Koenig flips a memorable line from the country standard “Satisfied Mind” (“But little they know that it’s so hard to find / One rich man in 10 with a satisfied mind”) into a sly joke about how the human condition hinges on self-delusion. We all think, as the protagonists of our own stories, that we alone can escape the fates that everyone else must face. “One rich man in 10 has a satisfied mind / and I’m the one,” Koenig sings, without any apparent concern that critics might (still) not give him credit for self-awareness.
I can only imagine how much worse Father Of The Bride would have been had Koenig tried to make a “relevant” pop record, with guest spots by buzzy pop singers and Soundcloud rappers awkwardly shoehorned in. Instead, he made a record relevant to anyone who similarly survived their Modern Vampires moment, that self-centered time in your late 20s when the prospect of turning 30 feels like an invocation of the apocalypse.
Of course, Koenig is too canny to ever completely forsake modern pop for old-dude record-collector rock. Young bucks like BloodPop, DJ Dahi, Childish Gambino collaborator Ludwig Göransson, and Steve Lacy of the indie-R&B band The Internet make vital contributions to Father Of The Bride, along with trusted long-time producer Ariel Rechtshaid. But when Koenig quotes iLoveMakonnen’s “Down 4 So Long” in “This Life” — a frisky, existential ’50s-style rock song that sounds to me like a status update for the couple from “Hannah Hunt” — it’s reminiscent of how Paul Simon referenced seeing Jay-Z on a billboard on 2011’s So Beautiful or So What. It’s pop culture passing you by as the daily mystery and mundanity of real life more fully commands your attention.
While Father Of The Bride has been billed as a double-record, it feels much more fleet than double-records tend to be. (Even at 18 songs, it clocks in at least than an hour.) But FOTB is easily the most open Vampire Weekend record — it’s both musically eclectic and emotionally unchecked, in the way that people tend to be once they have children and become unashamedly tender.
At the heart of the record are the duets between Koenig and Haim, which have the back-and-forth rhythms of a Nora Ephron comedy about the long arc of a relationship. “Baby, there’s no use in being clever,” they sing at one point. “Baby, it don’t mean we’ll stay together.” A few songs later, on the buoyant, affecting “Spring Snow,” the protagonist is about to be alone, again. “The snow fell last night / your flight couldn’t leave / come back to this bed / and take this reprieve.” Like Simon, Koenig can’t help but couch his philosophizing and sardonic storytelling in effervescent melodies and boisterous, danceable music. The end result feels like darkness stuffed inside of light, with jokes chasing away tears in the face of anxious, thrilling uncertainty, as your life does.
Father Of The Bride is out 5/3 via Columbia Records. Get it here.