What were you up to on May 14, 2013?
Recording yourself on Vine, the hot new app you’d heard so much about, while doing the Harlem Shake? Catching up on the latest “Blurred Lines” controversy? Looking forward to Kanye West’s Yeezus SNL performance that coming weekend? Vampire Weekend was releasing Modern Vampires of the City, their third album in six years. Like clockwork, those arrived in two-year intervals and were all quite excellent. They went on tour and won a Grammy, and spent the next six years releasing exactly zero new songs. Until today.
As promised last week, the much-mythologized indie band just shared a pair of songs and announced a new album. When Father of the Bride arrives this spring, it’ll face some lofty expectations, built up over that six-year sabbatical. This is their first major label project, after leaving XL Recordings for Columbia after Modern Vampires. They’ve gotten invited to perform on SNL on each of their three album cycles, and they’ve posted greater first-week sales with each successive LP, a rare feat straddling the download and streaming eras.
Now to those new songs. There’s “Harmony Hall” — the longer, fleshier, undoubtedly more “lead single” of the two — and “2021,” an interludey, minimalistic lullaby. The latter appears fixated on the future while the former is bound to induce flashbacks.
‘Harmony Hall” ends its euphoric chorus quoting “Finger Back,” an album cut from 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City:
“I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.”
That lyric caps off “Finger Back,” a herky-jerky, Talking Headsy-reggaeton romp of aggression and devotion. It appears within an anecdote about an Orthodox Jewish girl catching the eye of a guy, presumably Arabian, working at an Upper West Side falafel shop. When it reappears in “Harmony Hall” (quite possibly named after a building at the band’s NYC alma mater of Columbia), it closes a chorus centered on paranoia and the passage of time:
“Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified / I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.”
A lot has changed with Vampire Weekend, too. Founding member and jack-of-all trades Rostam Batmanglij left the band and three new touring members joined. Koenig and Rashida Jones welcomed a baby boy, the first child for each of them. In less weighty devlopments, Koenig is still vibing with Futura, but recently launched an Instragram dedicated to Jokerman.
Vampire Weekend may have been without new music for six years, but Koenig made sure its spirit stuck around if you knew where to look. He hosted his own bi-weekly Beats1 radio show, Time Crisis. He created the satirical New York-inspired anime Neo Yokio. He co-wrote new songs for the series, for last year’s Peter Rabbit flick, and for one of the decade’s biggest pop albums (more on that in a second). One place he did all-but-disappear was Twitter and, to be honest, we haven’t really recovered from that one.
Though he was often behind the scenes, staying in the game kept Koenig sharp. Alternative radio in 2019 is dominated by a litany of guitar-agnostic popsters who sound like the umpteenth xerox of Lovelytheband and Foster the People — a trend with undeniable roots in what sounded daring and experimental on Modern Vampires of the City. But Vamprie Weekend has been on a different wavelength for some time. “Guitar’s not dead,” Koenig cheekily proclaimed in a band update in early 2017. Later that year, he said country-folk storytelling, particularly the clarity of Kacey Musgraves, was influencing his new music. On Time Crisis, Koenig and his guests would often riff on the unlikely enduring coolness of the Grateful Dead and the dad rock universe at large. As Vampire Weekend poked its head out and returned to the stage last year, “8 Minute Cape Cod” — the idea of the OG Vampire Weekend song going full jam band — became a viral crowd request (they also played “A-Punk” three times in a row at Lollapalooza).
Wouldn’t you know it? “Harmony Hall” sprawls out with lush symphonies, communal vibes aplenty. It begins with gentle acoustic guitar harmonics and some of the plainest, most direct lyrics Koenig has ever sung: “We took a vow in summertime / now we find outselves in late December.” Saloon piano barrels in, channeling the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil.” And the “Harmony Hall” harmonies — they’re worth the price of admission, along with the Graceland and Peter Gabriel spirits they echo. Those influences have been called out in Vampire Weekend since the beginning, but here they sound, somehow, completely new.
And we can get deeper. “Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified” — that’s another line of the chorus, which at a glance, nods to the single’s serpentine artwork. But close Koenig followers know that he, ever the English nerd, has some favorite words he calls on again and again. “Wicked” is near the top of this list. Remember when he wound up co-writing “Hold Up,” the reggae-tinged second track on Beyoncé’s Lemonade? “Can’t you see there’s no other man above you? / What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you.” That all started when he tweeted some off-the-cuff lyrical riffs and took them — including that couplet — to a studio session with Diplo, who evetually took them to Beyoncé. Again, we really need this guy back on Twitter.
We could also get into how that word pops up in Neo Yokio dialogue (along with “elegant,” another favorite that’s almost guaranteed to appear on the album) or how “Harmony Hall” follows the alliterative title of “Hannah Hunt,” another callback to Koenig’s time at Columbia (she was a classmate of his). Or how the theme of years passing is also unavoidable in “2021.” But these are only two songs of a promised 16. And we’ve only got so much time.