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Millennial Brink: Vampire Weekend Wrestles With a World on Fire

Always more interested in life’s bigger questions than they’ve been given credit for, the band’s fourth studio album, ‘Father of the Bride,’ explores faith, age, and responsibility—before finding a shred of hope

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There she is on the cover of Vampire Weekend’s new album, Father of the Bride: Mother Earth.bmp, our planet as it might be rendered in an early version of MS Paint. “Big Blue,” Ezra Koenig calls her in one song, like an old chum. The cheekiness of the title is misleading, though; everything else about “Big Blue” has the disarming earnestness of a hymn. “For once in my life I felt close to you,” Koenig sings, his voice meek, humbled, as if he’s surrendering to a higher power. “I was so overcome with emotion, when I was hurt and in need of affection.” A gently strummed guitar nods like a palm tree. For about two minutes, Koenig repeats the verse over and over like a mantra, a spell, a string of rosary beads rubbed like worry stones between calloused fingers. Indifferently, or perhaps just imperceptibly, Earth continues to spin.

The songs Koenig has written over the past decade with Vampire Weekend have always been concerned with grand themes like skepticism and faith, but those are difficult things to talk about earnestly, so it was easier for his detractors to pretend that his songs were about boat shoes and mock them accordingly. Maybe they were a little bit about boat shoes in the beginning, but over time the New York four-piece developed gravitas so gradually that it seemed like it had been there all along. Vampire Weekend was the college record; its 2010 follow-up, the vivid, passport-stamped Contra, was the postcollegiate year spent backpacking abroad, trying on different ideologies, and fantasizing about never returning to the grid. “You wanted good schools and friends with pools,” Koenig croons on the album’s closer “I Think Ur a Contra,” a devastating kiss-off that borrows the language of revolutionary politics to discuss matters of the heart. “Well I don’t know …” he meanders on.

Vampire Weekend’s collective vision reached an apex with 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, which established multi-instrumentalist-producer Rostam Batmanglij as an expert studio sorcerer and Koenig as one of his generation’s most evocative and searching songwriters. “A gardener told me some plants move / but I could not believe it,” he sings at the beginning of the stirring breakup ballad “Hannah Hunt,” still one of the band’s finest songs. A moment later, whimsy turns quite seamlessly to weight: “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.” For so-called unbelievers, can nature, beauty, and love serve as their own kinds of higher powers? And if so, how do we keep faith in them when they prove fleeting, or fail us entirely? Things do not end well for the narrator and Hannah Hunt (Koenig borrowed the name from a girl in his undergraduate Buddhism class, because of course he took an undergraduate Buddhism class). In the wake of their doomed affair, Koenig strains past his wryly detached range and delivers perhaps the most impassioned vocal take to appear on any Vampire Weekend record: “If I can’t trust you then dammit, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer.”

“The typical quarter-life crisis,” Koenig said in a recent GQ interview, reflecting back on Modern Vampires. “Like, ‘What’s the point of this, what do I have to say, do I really want to keep doing this?’” Twentysomething malaise is a timeless source of angst, sure; Modern Vampires is a Saturn Return record if there ever was one. But the songs on that album also articulated a specific set of generational anxieties—the modern malaise of having inherited a wheezing planet, a broken economy, and a creeping sense that our lives will not play out on the same timeline as our parents’, rendering their blueprint for how to live meaningless. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Benetton anymore.) “You oughta spare the world your labor,” Koenig sang on the sweet, weary “Obvious Bicycle.” “It’s been 20 years and no one’s told the truth.” Vampire Weekend were the rare band that did not shrink from the m-word; confronted with the term “millennial unease” in an interview right before the record came out, Koenig replied, “I like that phrase. It’s a concise way to describe a lot of the feelings on the album.”

In a 2010 interview with The Jewish Chronicle, Koenig said that he wasn’t raised to be particularly religious but always had an interest in Jewish history, tradition, and culture. Vampire Weekend songs are accordingly polytheistic, fixated on the interpersonal ways in which different systems of belief can clash and harmonize. In a memorable spoken-word section at the end of Modern Vampires’ “Finger Back,” an “Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop, and why not? Should she have averted her eyes and just stared at the laminated poster of the Dome of the Rock?” Love, death, tradition, late capitalism, Israeli-Palestinian relations—Modern Vampires covered a lot of ground. It was the sort of record that earns you a six-year break.

Father of the Bride has been called Vampire Weekend’s feel-good record, their post-Rostam reinvention, their unabashed coming-out as a jam band. It is and isn’t all of those things. The songs are bright and loose, yes, but they’re also haunted by melancholy. Batmanglij left the band in 2016, but he had a hand in a few of these songs, and his presence still hangs over the record like an ineffable mist. It’s true that Koenig has name-checked the Grateful Dead, but the longest song on the record is just over five minutes, and quite a few of them are under three. As ever, Vampire Weekend remain slippery, plural, winkingly contradictory.

“I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die,” Koenig sings on the sprightly “Harmony Hall.” He sang the same lyric on “Finger Back”—a song with similar concerns if a much more frenzied tone. Koenig once had a tendency to overstuff his lines, rattling off his verses in the sped-up cadence of the guy who reads the terms and conditions at the end of a radio commercial. He’s in less of a hurry on Father of the Bride; here there’s space, time. This is the first Vampire Weekend album made since Koenig moved to Los Angeles (and the first since he and his partner Rashida Jones had a son last summer), but it would be a mistake to attribute FotB’s laid-back vibe solely to the change of scenery. “The last few years have actually been characterized by some of the most intense longing I’ve ever had for the East Coast,” Koenig said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I’m like, ‘You don’t understand—I’m sitting here beneath this burning white sun fantasizing about a week I spent in Vermont when I was 12.’”

Maybe that’s the tension animating this itchy, pastoral record: the incredible difficulty of accepting reality, staying in the moment, and appreciating the greenness of your own grass. Standout track “This Life” sounds like a party, but Koenig’s in the corner brooding: “This life, and all its suffering / Oh Christ, am I good for nothing?” Everyone around him shuffles blithely like Peanuts characters; Koenig plays Charlie Brown.

Father of the Bride has the feel of an album recorded in a house where the front door is always open. Guests casually pop in and out, occasionally overstaying their welcome. The Internet’s Steve Lacy drops by toward the end of the record, adding a fun, noodly energy to “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon.” Haim sister Danielle duets with Koenig on three of these 18 tracks and provides backing vocals on a few others. (To stretch the Graceland metaphor, as people always do when talking about Vampire Weekend, she’s the Linda Ronstadt to his Paul Simon.) Koenig says he conceived of their bantering songs like “Married in a Gold Rush” and “We Belong Together” as tributes to the Loretta Lynn–Conway Twitty duets he remembers hearing as a child. But, to me at least, these songs are the low points of the record, and their voices just don’t work together; Haim’s earnest, mannered croon seems like it’s from a different planet than Koenig’s knowing drawl. More harmonious, though, is the excellent opener “Hold You Now,” a dialogue between an ex-lover and a bride-to-be on her wedding day. As ever, the presence of something larger looms above these two human figures: In the middle of the song, the skies open up to reveal a sample of a Melanesian choral arrangement from Hans Zimmer’s Thin Red Line score. “Promises of future glory don’t make a case for me,” he admits. So why should she believe in him, then? Koenig answers with one of the simplest and most breathtakingly lovely lyrics he’s ever written: “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now.”

The image of Earth that graces the cover of this album is nostalgic not just because it looks like it was made with Windows 98. It also looks bright, happy, unpolluted—not exactly the picture that springs to mind when people of Koenig’s generation think about the current state of our planet. The waters have always been rising in Vampire Weekend’s music (see: “Hudson”), but Father of the Bride is especially preoccupied with natural catastrophe, even when it’s standing in as a metaphor for more personal crises. “No time to discuss it,” Koenig sings on the succinct lullaby “Bambina,” “Can’t speak when the waves reach our house upon the dunes.” Elsewhere: “There’s an avalanche coming, don’t cover your eyes.” And later, with a palpable nervousness: “How long till we sink to the bottom of the sea?”

It’s tempting to consider Father of the Bride Vampire Weekend’s pastoral/domestic bliss album—their Ram, their Tupelo Honey. But I don’t think there can be a Ram or a Tupelo Honey these days, when the sun takes the shape of a ticking clock and pastoralism itself contains its own reminders that the planet is heating up. Koenig is 35 now. The millennial-unease narrative has progressed since he last addressed it six years ago on Modern Vampires, and it has only gotten bleaker. Concern-trolling over whether young people are taking too many selfies or are too lazy at work has aged into larger, scarier conundrums: Will we all die still in student-loan debt? Is marriage an obsolete institution? Is it moral to bring children into a world that we’re destroying?

Ultimately, though, these songs find plenty to believe in: love, companionship, the primacy of the present moment. “Hallelujah, you’re still mine,” Koenig sings at the end of “We Belong Together,” one of the record’s most optimistic numbers. “If there’s not some grand design / How’d this pair of stars align?” Koenig’s songs are still explorations of faith (like the couple from “Finger Back,” the pair at the center of Father of the Bride seem to be reconciling their conflicting religious upbringings) but they’re also reminders that even secular forces like optimism, hope, and progress ask from us a near-spiritual level of trust. So maybe you bring children into a warming world because one of those kids is going to patch the hole in the ozone. Maybe some plants do move, if you sit still and stare long and hard enough at them. Maybe forever isn’t so scary when you realize it’s just a bunch of consecutive right-nows.