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The unromance of growing up: a review of Vampire Weekend's "Father of the Bride"

Jul. 23, 2019
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Is it corny or profound?? I can’t tell. 

- What I texted my friend following my first listen to the new Vampire Weekend album Father of the Bride—their first in six years. 

Is this corny or profound? Ezra Koenig’s languid voice, like the droopiness of an eyelid of a high person, is chemical-slow and seemingly unconcerned; it is a draped arm over a couch and the warm tug of it around your shoulders. Their music always does this, perturbs me this way. As the string-bean-bodied child I was—a shy, unexpressed girl with a notebook and tights striped black and green—Vampire Weekend launched me into some whirring high plane of thought. I was nodded to in a knowing, tender way, I was made real and soft and clever. They were my first band-crush. My first plane of fangirldom. I spent my time listening to songs which asked “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” and lines overstuffed with allusions to the idiosyncrasies of New York City and the East Coast, references to Judaism and literature. 

That Vampire Weekend—Ivy-boy-indie-rock incarnate—has passed out of sight in a way, and I love them for it. Father of the Bride shifts—with clumsy feet and a full, sheepish grin, a heart roomier than anticipated—toward growing up. Toward the cooling murk of adulthood, whatever that is. The band’s frontrunner and lead singer, Ezra Koenig, is 35 now, and a father. Art reflects the artist whether they want it to or not, and it’s clear that fatherhood has fundamentally deepened and changed the way Koenig makes music.

Most of the songs on this album reveal a weariness with the headfirst intensity of life’s flames, a learning to like the softness of the chill world outside. In “Strangers,” Koenig sings, “I used to freeze on the dance floor / I watched the icebergs from the shore.” Just like that, I’m firmly relocated within myself—not yet past the special estrangement of a nineteen-year-old in the overcrowded gut of a party, and not yet past the peculiar aloneness that maybe doesn’t expire with age but perhaps learns to stop giving into itself. 

As Vampire Weekend’s music has evolved, so too has their self-awareness, particularly in terms of privilege. Privilege has always complicated Vampire Weekend’s music in its endless shades. Current indie music is finally dominated by womxn—by womxn of color, queer womxn, and non-binary musicians. In re-evaluating Vampire Weekend’s position in music, I sense that they are well-aware of and uneasy with their own privilege. I am exhausted of the white-cis-male, self-absorbed Ryan Adams’ of music, with their talent, certainly, but their overestimation of its singularity; their faith in their own profundity, their unquestioned genius and importance wielded like one hogs the road. The road which has never thrust the same challenges and injustices toward white men as it has womxn artists and people of color. I am tired of accepting the cruelties and abuses of these men as mere blips, the cost of the tortured genius, something no one but white men ever gets to be. Vampire Weekend seem to try to reckon with their privilege, and they don’t confuse it with talent.  It’s certainly white-guys-interrogating-their-own-privilege-music, but it’s also sometimes truly discursive, self-critical, and poignant. 

Father of the Bride knows how, better than any of Vampire Weekend’s previous albums, to navigate a political terrain through music without being too grandiose. In “Harmony Hall,” Koenig echoes a line he sang on his last album: “I don’t wanna live like this / but I don’t wanna die.” It seems that he’s let that in-between become his home. “Harmony Hall” is special. It’s a subdued but upbeat anthem with palms raised, laying out the hypocrisy boiling at the center of our houses of power: “Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified.” It is quietly political, reliant on metaphor and uneasy imagery to communicate its distrust of power—especially power that believes itself innocent. 

Koenig makes exasperation with his own hopefulness palpable in “This Life,” a playful, pensive song whose witticisms are surprisingly affecting: “Baby I know pain is as natural as the rain / I just thought it didn’t rain in California.” It’s cliche, but it works—its soft resignation grazing you without swallowing you whole. Koenig knows his own naivete now, which is something new for Vampire Weekend. He’s letting life circle him rather than try to run flush-faced, breathless circles around it. 

A handful of songs feature Danielle Haim, including the first track, “Hold You Now”—a tender but pragmatic conversation between a bride and her lover before her wedding night. I wouldn’t expect Haim’s and Koenig’s voices to carry each other so well, but they wind around each other with a gentleness so unabashed as to be almost foreign for Vampire Weekend. 

Father of the Bride does something remarkable, albeit quite imperfect: this album grapples with the weight of the questions it’s asking, holding the shittiness of tyranny and bigotry accountable, affording these toxins the heaviness they are owed, while still holding one foot in lightheartedness. I admit, the album’s ability to stay playful and slightly removed feels like a space mostly relegated to the most privileged Americans, but I also appreciate its reluctance to sink entirely into despair. This is an existential album without being contrived. Koenig is preoccupied with that “sunken” feeling, the universal one we’ve all strayed toward, but he’s aware of its ridiculousness too. He articulates the weirdness in “How Long?”: “Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” Again, a certain insulation is recognizable here: the current state of America doesn’t so much surprise those who’ve had to contend with its bigotry all their lives. It is a fact of American life; Donald Trump just makes all of the twisted history blatant. We know it’s not history at all—it’s still carrying on. Koenig often references Judaism in his lyrics, and of course anti-Semitism fails to shock him anymore; but its pervasiveness in this country, how unacknowledged and in fact encouraged it goes by those in power, never fails to horrify. 

Is Vampire Weekend aware of their cleverness and the social institutions they implicate? I think so. Do they make genius political music? No, they don’t. Acknowledging their privilege in the music industry might not be enough to dismantle that privilege. What I like, though, is how Father of the Bride doesn’t overestimate itself. In other words, the band never overestimates their own position in music in 2019. They seem to recognize their near-unspecialness, and that’s what makes this album riveting, what makes it ecstatic and unexpected and at times masterful. There is longing; there is wistfulness and exhaustion and an eye on the rearview mirror, reminding us of our own jagged backstories as we wade into the next moment. We are always watching the ones we’ve already had, and we’re better for it. No longer do we obsess over our own wit, our own importance—all of those embarrassing feelings we weren’t supposed to engage in are here now, and we let them in without blushing.