Not to damn this band to the ninth circle of faint praise, but Vampire Weekend has always been the epitome of neato.
When the New York quartet first colonized the greater indie blog-realm back in 2007, they weren’t posing as the brave saviors of rock-and-roll. They were just being their charismatic, affable, clever, Columbia-educated, “Graceland”-loving, boat-shoe-wearing selves. They were being honest. And the songs? They were light, bright, smart and as tidy as they come. It was as if these little tyros were trying to ramp up our skepticism so their melodies could melt it all away. Max-neato.
Unfortunately, the band’s cheerily apocalyptic fourth album, “Father of the Bride,” comes after a six-year absence and one man down — Rostam Batmanglij, the guitarist and producer who originally figured out how to overload a Vampire Weekend song with sonic details that somehow made everything feel airy. Without Batmanglij at the controls, frontman Ezra Koenig’s songs now seem to only sprawl and sink. Or maybe we should chalk that up to the fact that Vampire Weekend has since relocated from New York (where you hustle down sidewalks with pep in your step) to Los Angeles (where you slog through traffic in the golden sunshine). Either way, “Father of the Bride” sounds like a tight band trying to get loose — or really, a prim band acting messy.
Koenig’s approach hasn’t changed all that much, just his execution. So much of Vampire Weekend’s breakout music owed big debts to Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” and 12 years later, Koenig has seemingly returned to the same wellspring of inspiration: the cassette collection stowed away in the glove compartment of his parents’ Saab. Listen to how the saggy groove of “Stranger” runs parallel to that Jimmy Buffett song about volcanoes. Or how the jangle-clap of “Sympathy” pantomimes the Gipsy Kings. And while there’s a strange filial piety to be felt in these gestures, there isn’t a lot else.
In other songs, Koenig funnels his accurately doomy worldview through cute melodies, singing about “this life and all its suffering” and how “hate is always waiting at the gate.” At one point he asks, “What’s the point of human beings?” On the album’s lead single, “Harmony Hall,” Koenig presents his desperation — “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die” — with some tambourine shimmy and a wink. Is this song supposed to sound like a Target ad? As long as we live in a capitalist system, Warholian lulz will never go out of style — but when the entire world already sounds like a commercial, there isn’t much reason to listen to this album more than once.
If you believe in rock-and-roll as a game of eternal returns, “Father of the Bride” might feel like an attempt to replicate Fleetwood Mac’s 1987 opus, “Tango in the Night.” Both albums capture a pop-minded rock group floating beyond an era of music it helped define, simultaneously exuding hyper-presence and obsolescence, a last gasp that sounds more like a contented sigh.
Or if you don’t buy into the idea of rock reincarnation, you can also think of this music in terms of a stone being kerplunked into a pond. To listen to Vampire Weekend in 2019 is to behold the softest ripple of the great American rock-and-roll splash as it moves outward toward nothing — the Target logo vanishing into liquid stillness.