Vampire Weekend don't get "dark" on their brand-new Modern Vampires of the City album, they get "deep," turning song structures inside out, bending frontman Ezra Keonig's lithe voice beneath the weight of digital lacquer, and taking their preppy pop in bold new directions. It is a third album in every sense of the term, the adventurous, unapologetic one bands earn the right to make after proving they're in it for the long haul (something VW did with 2010's Contra), and ease into the next phase of their career.
It represents a brand-new Vampire Weekend, to be certain, and yet, Modern Vampires also spends no shortage of time looking backwards ... it is a bold reinvention, and, in a lot of ways, a rediscovery, too. Of past themes and traditions, songs and styles long forgotten, yet readily available; consider it musical archeology, because VW certainly do.
"We went a little further, a little deeper, in every direction on this record, but I think that, we've always tried to connect to a tradition," multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij said. "Whether that's a recording tradition or a songwriting tradition or a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, you're connecting to a tradition, and that's always somewhere in the back of our minds. Whether it's other songs or music that we love, I hope that, at the end of the day, we are connecting in a way that's real."
"Looking back on everything, time is a big part of it, as a theme, especially with the music, and the approach to production," Koenig added. "The mix of old and new is definitely kind of what gives the album its character, though the choices Rostam and [co-producer] Ariel [Rechtshaid] made."
That's evident all over Modern Vampires, starting with the album's title (which is taken from Junior Reid's song "One Blood") and running Koenig's Elvis-like vocal inflections on "Diane Young," "Ya Hey's" lyrical nods to Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" and the Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown," and, of course, "Step," a rather cunning slice of Baroque pop that sees Koenig shouting out Angkor Wat, Croesus, Run-DMC and Modest Mouse (or Virginia Woolf) — to name just a few — and takes its influence from a decade's-old rap song. It somehow weaves all of these things together, ignoring time and place, and, in the process, creates something new ... which is to say, it may be the perfect example of what VW were attempting to do on their anachronistic new album.
"That song started through this Souls of Mischief rarity, called 'Step To My Girl;' I discovered it and I really liked the line 'Every time I see you in the world/You always step to my girl,' so I found myself writing some other melodies and lyrics, writing this other song inspired by it," Koenig explained. "And then Rostam cooked up these harpsichord parts, these new harmonic identities for it. And then we went backwards, and we had to find out who wrote that line, it got even more interesting, because it turns out Souls of Mischief didn't write that line, that actually came from this other guy, YZ ... so it was kind of perfect, because that's how everything is, throughout time, ideas take on new forms."
Going backwards to move forward. It's a trick Vampire Weekend pull off with thrilling results on Modern Vampires, though it's one that came with a few casualties. In order to push on, Koenig had to close the book on the past — this is the third and final part of a trilogy that began on their 2008 self-titled debut. So say goodbye to the band you knew, from here on out, VW are something entirely new.
"When we first started the band, we didn't say 'Our first three records are going to be a trilogy,' but as time goes on, you look back on them and think 'Are they interconnected? Do they feel like they belong together?'" Koenig said. "I feel strongly that these albums form a trilogy, they've kind of felt like chapters in a book, with the same characters and people and ideas, but in different settings and eras, moving through. And who knows what the next album will be like, but these three definitely form some sort of story."