So I guess the first act this year that us critics are supposed to have an opinion about is Vampire Weekend. That's always fun, especially as out in the real world (at, say, the store I work at, where we still don't have a listing for their debut yet) no-one's heard of them, let alone heard them, yet. Still, while I think the whole critical/'blogospherical' echo chamber that happens is in the long run kind of damaging, it can be fun, and seeing so many people get so worked up over what is ultimately an enjoyably slight little pop-rock record is perversely thrilling. And as for the question of African (or Paul Simon's) influence, I don't know and there's a sense in which I don't care; not that I'm apathetic to the music of other parts of the world, or to influence in general, but finding out the exact details ain't going to make me like Vampire Weekend
any more or less.
And what does make me like it are two main elements, one of which Robert Christgau articulated in his fairly-big deal semi-defence of the album: The sense of joy to the whole thing. Even the should-be-closer "Walcott" manages to spin us through several variations on "Walcott, don't you wanna get out of Cape Cod tonight?" all of which sound like Ezra Koenig and his chums are pretty alive with the possibilities of being young and educated (and possibly rich - aside from attending a fancy school, does anyone know if they're actually rich?). Mostly due to the flights that Rostam Batmanglij sends the music spiralling off into (a feat he pulls so often it stops being a crutch and becomes a style). And that's to say nothing of the likes of "A-Punk," "Mansard Roof" and "Oxford Comma" (which makes being lied to sound like a fucking blast), or even the relatively limp "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," which at least has the gleefully yelped "do you want to
like I do?" interjection. The album practically seethes with the wide-open face the world presents to kids like these guys, and although I only overlap with their demographic group partially, it's certainly appealing. The whole thing puts me in mind of the line that John Darnielle busts out on The Sunset Tree
that titles this post, although his has a different feel for all
sorts of reasons.
I mean, the thing is, I'm definitely not rich (I've worked part time or full time my entire post-secondary education to pay my own rent, gotten loans for tuition, etc), and neither is my family (solidly middle class, thanks, with the leftist lean you tend to get up here), but I do go to the Canadian equivalent of an Ivy League school (which means: education just as good, less money around, tuition much
cheaper) and the only way I could be considered anything close to 'poor' is by the standards of the social class I find myself in (not wholly unwillingly, of course). Change some of the signifiers (which are, really, just local colour) and Koenig could be singing about Johnston Green on "Campus," and while I've come to love that song, I can palpably understand why anyone who isn't on one might hate it. Koenig, like all good songwriters, is as much standing outside and commenting/depicting as he is celebrating, but although I have my own (serious) problems with the upper class, I'm not sure I follow why he shouldn't be allowed to do the latter at all, especially since he seems to have a good head on his shoulders.
But the reasons I am not sure how much my love for the record will persist have nothing to do with the appropriation/class issues people are up in arms about. First off all, I have to agree that after "Campus" there's a sharp dip in quality, except for "I Stand Corrected" (surely the happiest song of its type I've ever heard, albeit quietly so) and "Walcott" - which really is robbed of its rightful place as the send-off to the album. The other three tracks aren't horrible, but they are filler, and they're not terribly well sequenced. Maybe I'll come around to them, but if not it's likely I'll be waiting to see if Vampire Weekend can top this one.
But I'm worried they won't, at least not for me, for the other reason I'm not sure my love of Vampire Weekend
won't just be a fling: I may be too old. The debut is great mostly because of the way those first six songs especially sum up the aimless, vertigo-esque happiness of the undergrad, and although I'm a grad student I'm not yet tied down enough that I can't feel it, albeit a bit vicariously. But I'm not sure it would work for me as nostalgia, and I'm not sure Koenig's focus on the callow is going to be something he moves away from, or even that he should! That might just be his strength, and as the band's videos
demonstrate, on of Vampire Weekend's key strengths is that they seem blissfully unconcerned about everyone else's concerns.
To contrast that, consider another album: Phoenix's mostly unheralded It's Never Been Like That
. Still in many ways a 'young person's' album, Thomas Mars (who, yes, is just over 30) writes about not getting what you want in ways that seem much less able to shrug it off than Vampire Weekend
can (which, again, is one of that album's virtues). When writing about the Afghan Whigs' 1965
, I've said it's my favourite album about not getting laid, but when I did I had to think about what else I could put in that category; I guess on reflection It's Never Been Like That
certainly qualifies (it doesn't help that I fell for the Phoenix disc in the middle of a relatively severe crush, I guess). But whereas Greg Dulli seems on the prowl for any number of women, Mars seems focused on one; but it's not a breakup record, it's a never-quite-getting-there one (in the "oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstood" sense). Vampire Weekend, meanwhile, seem to regard that lack of ability to connect as a shame, but ultimately not that important - there are other opportunities ahead. Mars sounds a bit more aware of what's at stake, of how quickly you find yourself on the wrong side of the hip young crowd with a stable group of friends that's a tiny bit limiting (or feels that way) even as it's nurturing, wondering how you're going to meet anyone new. I don't think it's particularly self-revealing or self-pitying to say that while I am happy and love my friends, I identify with Phoenix a lot more than Vampire Weekend.