Vampire Weekend Take Wild New Paths to Familiar Places on Only God Was Above Us

Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio and Chris Tomson take all the right risks to deliver a superb return to form on their awaited fifth album.

Music Reviews Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend Take Wild New Paths to Familiar Places on Only God Was Above Us

Over the last 15 or so years, Vampire Weekend have sounded like a thousand different versions of themselves, but they have always sounded like Vampire Weekend. Experimentation is in the artist’s job description, but it can sometimes come at the expense of a cohesive career. Not for VW. With Ezra Koenig always at the helm, the band has maintained its identity while changing its tune again and again, whether via lofty chamber pop on Modern Vampires of the City or while whistling their way into the land of jammy soft rock on Father of the Bride. On their fifth album, Only God Was Above Us, Vampire Weekend land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum that is their sound, leaving room for various sonic offshoots when a song or moment calls for it. It’s not exactly like anything you’ve heard before; it’s 100% Vampire Weekend.

All told, the album is as good as anything the New York City-formed rockers have ever made (which is to say, very good), and it features a little DNA from everything they’ve ever put out: a sibling to their self-titled debut, a cousin to Contra and the rebellious nephew of 2013’s Modern Vampires. It even shares some similarities with their most recent offspring, Father of the Bride. But for each of that last album’s sunbeams, Only God Was Above Us has a sky of lightning bolts. It’s at times darker and weirder, but it’s not depressing. It’s like getting older: Strange and sometimes sad discoveries appear around every corner, often exposing more questions than answers, but with them comes time-earned satisfaction.

One of those questions that might come with age is what mark are we leaving on this world. Koenig doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with individual legacy, but throughout Only God Was Above Us, he spends a good deal of time playing with the idea of generational imprints. Each generation both creates disasters and is doomed to deal with the disasters made by the one before it, all while laying a foundation for the culture: the fashion, music, food and sports stories that will define us. Koenig says as much on the feisty “Gen-X Cops”: “It’s by design and consequentially / Each generation makes its own apology.”

This is an especially fitting theme for Vampire Weekend, who are arguably one of the quintessential bands for their generation. Their rise to notoriety happened in perfect time with the collapse of the economy and millennials’ formative years. Decades of cultural problems were dumped at our doorsteps, but solutions are often far out of reach. Is this really a millennial-specific crisis, or is it only a matter of time before the next generation comes of age and the cycle starts anew? “Who builds the future?” Koenig sings on “Capricorn.” “I know you’re tired of trying … you don’t have to try.”

There’s also the question of heritage, and how much do we allow our past—either collective or individual—to influence us. Vampire Weekend seem to be keenly aware of their own narrative on Only God Was Above Us. The whole album has a lived-in feel, probably due to the many echoes of songs from Vampire Weekends past.

The stunning “Mary Boone,” which starts as a Father of the Bride-like ballad, eventually unravels into a hypnotic soundscape not all that unlike “Step.” “Capricorn” couldn’t sound more different from the mostly chipper “Diane Young,” another track from Modern Vampires of the City, but the two could be in conversation. “Diane” says: “Nobody knows what the future holds / Said it’s bad enough just getting old.” And on “Capricorn,” “Diane Young” is swapped out for its homophone “dying young”: “Too old for dying young / Too young to live alone,” Koenig sings. “Sifting through centuries / For moments of your own.”

Vampire Weekend’s signature cascading piano and quickened drums appear on “Connect,” while they serve up Kinks-like guitar lines and disjointed percussion courtesy of Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes on “Prep School Gangsters”—which takes its name from a 1996 New York magazine article of the same title. But “Gangsters” isn’t the only place where Vampire Weekend pay homage to that unofficial member of their band: New York City. Their first three albums—Modern Vampires of the City, in particular—are infused with the city’s energy, and Only God Was Above Us has that signature jolt.

While they got their start there in the mid-2000s, Only God Was Above Us traipses through a pre-9/11 New York City. The album cover itself is a photo taken by photographer Steven Siegel, who covered 20th century New York, of the interior of a grimy subway car. Another Siegel image of the skyline circa-1980s served as the single art for “Capricorn” and “Gen-X Cops.” Every song seems to have some connection to a New York City folktale, landmark or character. But if the album begins with the stereotypical NYC attitude of “Fuck the world” (“Ice Cream Piano”), it overrides that kind of mindset by the end: “The enemy’s invincible / I hope you let it go.” Koenig spins his own story into New York’s vast history, happy to visit the past but never swallowed by it.

Those cumbersome questions of generational impact and the past’s influence sidle up alongside tidy melodies and pleasing instrumentation on Only God Was Above Us. The deeper meaning is there for the parsing, but one doesn’t need a knowledge of NYC geography or lore or even Vampire Weekend themselves to appreciate what is happening in these songs. Like all the Vampire Weekend albums that came before Only God Was Above Us, it’s a long drink of zesty rock music that is, above all, endlessly enjoyable and impeccably produced (thanks here in large part to frequent Koenig collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid).

For Vampire Weekend, boundary-pushing artistry goes hand-in-hand with easy listening, even easy living. Koenig shared his idea of the good life in a recent Rolling Stone UK interview: “‘I think my vibe is just walking on the Upper East Side getting coffee. That’s what I want to do.’” Only God Was Above Us is about transformations. It represents the idea that even with growth and change, an artist—or just a human being in general—can preserve their core. It’s high-brow art in that way. But if you, like Koenig, can appreciate the art of a good walk, it would also just make for a great soundtrack to your next mindless stroll.

Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a full-time editor and part-time writer. You can find her in Atlanta, or rewatching Little Women on Letterboxd.

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