The “Millennial Unease” of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City

The “Millennial Unease” of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City August 7, 2013

Modern Vampires of the City, the third album from the New York- based rock band Vampire Weekend, released on May 14 this year, and (to my own great surprise, not having loved their earlier work) I’ve hardly stopped playing it.

The band’s first two albums (Vampire Weekend, 2008; Contra, 2010) brought popular and critical acclaim. The albums also brought vitriolic criticism for being privileged white boys with a boat-shoes-and-blazer aesthetic playing with African rhythms. (I’m told you can’t write a Vampire Weekend album review without referring to Paul Simon and world music, so consider that done).

On this third album, however, the sound has coalesced, and the four musicians have matured into artists who deliver. Rather than relying on five-dollar words and eclectic influences, the band has settled into its own sound. The lyrics shine with heart, sincerity, self-awareness, and tension — exploring what Pitchfork tentatively named, with lead singer Ezra Koenig’s approval, “millennial unease.”

The 12 songs of Modern Vampires of the City convey a millennial unease with God, patriotism, identity, nostalgia, and adulthood. All of the songs were written by Ezra Koenig, who was raised in a Jewish family. While his religious background seems to play an important role in this album’s themes, it would be wrong to assume that the viewpoint in his songs is his own. What is accurate is that every detail is intentional.

The album is relentless in addressing the reality that death comes for all of us. With songs like “Diane Young” (a homophone for “dying young”), the speaker critiques the kind of reckless youth that thinks it’s indestructable. But then he doubts himself, wondering if his careful living is just motivated by cowardice — after all, “Nobody knows what the future holds / And it’s bad enough just getting old.”

The next track asks, “I want to know / Does it bother you? / The low click of the ticking clock/ There’s a lifetime right in front of you / And everyone I know.” When the chorus repeats, “lifetime” changes to “headstone,” suggesting that in nearly the same moment that you regard your future, you remember that one day, you will die.

Drumbeats on the album mimic a clock ticking and a gun firing, and lyrics throughout the album suggest impending doom.

These devastatingly poppy ruminations on mortality, though, are not mostly about death. They’re more about life, about living with the awareness that your days are numbered. They’re about figuring out how to grow up, even as you realize that much of who you are has already been determined by your family, your birthplace, your nation, and your generation. And they’re about dealing with the fearsome reality that with every step toward adulthood, choosing one path means abandoning all others.

And one of the trickiest aspects of forming that adult identity is figuring out what to do with the God you were raised to believe in. On the second track, “Unbelievers,” the narrator doesn’t quite know how to feel about the half of the world that believes he’s destined for hell. “We know the fire awaits unbelievers, all of the sinners the same. / Girl, you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train,” he sings to a peppy tune. Yet before the song ends, this unbeliever is wondering, “What holy water contains a little drop for me?”

The second half of the album has more of this conflicted attitude toward religion. While the first half prioritizes the pursuit of  romantic love in light of our mortality in tracks like “Don’t Lie,” track six – arguably the most perfect song on the album – is a turning point.

Titled “Hannah Hunt,” the song tells where romantic love fails. The narrator has replaced belief in God with faith in Hannah, the girl with whom he’s traveling westward: “A man of faith said / Hidden eyes could see what I was thinking / I just smiled and told him / That was only true of Hannah / And we glided on through Waverly and Lincoln.”

When the couple gets to Santa Barbara, though, Hannah is nostalgic, missing the “freezing beaches” they came from. But the narrator wants to keep moving forward, walking into town to buy a newspaper.  He had thought they had their “own sense of time,” but the relationship isn’t working out, and it’s shaking his faith.

When romantic love fails, the narrator starts speaking directly to God. In the next song, “Everlasting Arms,” he says he tried to live by God’s commands but failed. He concludes that he was “made to live without” God and doubts he could ever serve a master. Yet he calls out, “Hold me / In your everlasting arms.” But are those arms comforting him, or keeping him “trapped under the chandelier / That’s going down”?

Tracks 8 and 9 offer psalmic lament, asking God for some explanation for the bloodshed and misery in the world.

“Ya Hey” is the final song addressed to, well, Yahweh / YHWH, and it’s a retelling of Moses’ experience at the burning bush. The narrator sees proof of God’s existence — “in the dark of this place, there’s the glow of your face” — and wonders if he’s made a mistake in abandoning religion. At the same time, he can’t abide a God who won’t reveal Himself more fully. “You won’t even say your name / Only I Am That I Am / Who could ever live that way?”

Despite all the talk about time and death, Modern Vampires of the City is not a morbid album. Ultimately, it calls listeners to keep moving forward in love, even when it seems God has abandoned you, the world is headed for destruction, and nostalgia calls you back to a safer life. The bookend tracks make this clear.

“Listen,” the singer commands in track 1: The world doesn’t care about you and will only lie to you. But while the sun is up, seize the day, and cherish whatever love you find. Similarly, the final track aims to comfort our unease. Yes, death is coming, and you have to live in the present, but “you take your time, young lion” — it’s OK to grow up slowly.

There’s been a rumpus on the Internet lately about millennials and religion, and that’s not all bad. But maybe instead of talking more about millennial unease, it would be good to do what track 1 of Modern Vampires of the City asks us to do: “Listen.”

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