Vampire Weekend was perhaps always fated to be the stereotypical collegiate rock band. Formed by a group of Columbia University students, all of whom hold family roots in the Northeast, the band’s early independent albums were defined by a broad range of sounds and youthful craftiness in lyrics, which betrayed their origin and led more than a few critics to write them off as privileged upper-classers co-opting foreign musicians’ work, a point that frontman Ezra Koenig would strongly refute. Considering how Vampire Weekend had boxed themselves in this way, their third album, “Modern Vampires of the City” (2013) seems deliberately designed to break away from this perception. While it does not exactly succeed in this regard, it nonetheless brings the band’s distinctive style to full maturity.
“Modern Vampires”’s sonic refinement can be attributed, in part, to how it introduces a grandiose scope to Vampire Weekend’s original sound. Aided for the first time by outside producer Ariel Rechtshaid, primary instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij embellishes the band’s signature Afrobeat-inspired rhythms and spirited melodies with choirs, strings, and brass throughout, both broadening the dramatic dimension and accentuating the darker elements lying beneath the surface. Even as the album’s most expansive moments of triumph like “Worship You” and “Don’t Lie,” Batmanglij keeps a sense of sorrow always visible in the background, crafting a soundscape both as sprawling and solemn as the photograph of a smog-filled Manhattan skyline that graces the album’s cover.
Koenig’s lyrics, meanwhile, take full advantage of this soundscape to closely examine the people living under the smog. Perhaps drawing from his experience as a native of the city, “Modern Vampires”’s libretto feels very much like the collected thoughts of a young New Yorker growing into adulthood: disillusioned, restless, desperate for love, questioning spirituality, and above all deeply rooted in their identity to the city. (“See you next year in Jerusalem,” the conclusion of “Finger Back promises: “You know, the one at 103rd and Broadway?”) Worry and resignation are the order of the day, as Koenig’s verses explore the onset of adult responsibility, wavering ideological and romantic commitments, and the role and nature of religious faith (particularly in the stormy ruminations of “Ya Hey”), from an acerbic but still somewhat hopeful point of view, surprisingly similar to the classic heroes of the New York “canon” like Holden Caulfield or Nick Carraway.
Despite Vampire Weekend having brought their talents to fruition on “Modern Vampires,” the future it seemingly suggested still has yet to come to pass. In the decade since its release, Batmanglij would leave the band during a hiatus to pursue a solo career, and the Koenig-directed comeback album “Father of the Bride” (2019) would end up covering a more limited thematic scope over a longer run time, lacking the aspirational broadness that defined its predecessor. The college band may have reunited, but they’re struggling to push beyond a thesis work that offered so much promise. “Modern Vampires of the City” will remain an impressive masterpiece all the same, but it’s not so hard now to reflect on the platitudes Koenig screams out at the end of “Diane Young” – “Live my life in self-defense / You know I love the past ’cause I hate suspense” – and perhaps see his band’s present stagnation staring back.
Time-Warped Records is a column dedicated to retrospective reviews of music albums at least 10 years old; reader requests are welcome. To suggest an album for review, please email Alden Parker ’26 at [email protected].