“It was all a dream / I used to read Thrasher magazine,” goes Ezra Koenig’s suburban-white-kid version of the Biggie Smalls lyric. The Vampire Weekend front man sings the line over bright, echoey trumpet, and cheerful xylophone on “Giant,” a bonus track from Vampire Weekend’s 2010 sophomore album Contra. It sounds nothing like Biggie, nothing like hip-hop. It just sounds bizarre.
On “One,” a song from Vampire Weekend’s 2008 self-titled debut, Koenig copies the line, “absolute horror,” from a Metallica song, also called “One.” Metallica’s “One” is about a soldier slowly bleeding to death. Vampire Weekend’s is about an Ivy League kid whose sweater is out of style.
Vampire Weekend have been doing this since before they blew up. They take scraps of music from as far away as B.I.G. or Metallica and they repurpose it into their strange, but catchy, brand of baroque pop. It’s creativity at its best. George Harrison made a new style with the influence of Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Biggie Smalls repurposed the spoken word of The Last Poets (where the lyric “party and bullshit” came from). Vampire Weekend takes lyrics from Biggie and Metallica.
Influences in songs like “Giant” and “One” were subtle. But Vampire Weekend are taking more risks with their sound. If their latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, doesn’t sound like the old Vampire Weekend, it’s because they’re getting more comfortable with their genre-bending, strange-sounding habit.
“Step,” one of Modern Vampires’s singles, is a tribute to ’90s rap group Souls of Mischief. “Step” riffs on Souls of Mischief’s similarly titled “Step to My Girl,” which itself samples saxophonist George Washington, Jr.’s cover of “Aubrey,” by Bread. So the song is already a stack three artists deep of musical reinterpretations when Vampire Weekend’s keyboardist/producer Rostam Batmanglij adds something of his own. He composes a harpsichord and organ background that follows the Souls of Mischief tune. Then Koenig comes in singing words about a “girl” who’s really a music collection. It’s almost as different from the last three versions as it could be.
Unlike Vampire Weekend’s earlier tribute songs like “Giant” and “One,” “Step” takes not just a lyric, but also the melody from its parent song. Also, it’s not an outtake from an album, like “Giant” was; the band confidently put “Step” near the front of Modern Vampires, as if to say “this is who we are. We make harpsichord music out of hip-hop.”
Modern Vampires is a more solemn album than the other two. On the self-titled album the band tackles comma usage and on Contra, they mock a suburban girl’s booshie all-natural toothpaste, but Modern Vampires is about death, growing up, death, God, and death. Dying, dying young, the setting sun or ticking clocks appear in almost every song. Blogger Matthew Perpetua described the album’s theme as YOLO, but with grimmer overtones.
Consider “Don’t Lie,” which is like Vampire Weekend’s version of “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel (an ok comparison considering how much Koenig wrote on his college blog about Billy Joel). Joel tries to get a catholic girl’s virginity by warning her she might die without ever doing it. Then he very chivalrously offers his services (“I might as well be the one”). Where Joel is slick, the speaker in “Don’t Lie” is depressing. He tries to convince a married woman to leave her husband because death is fast approaching all of us (“Dial up, three rings, and return him his gold / there’s a headstone right in front of you / and everyone I know”). Relatively slow tempo and images of frailty in the lyrics, like “young hips shouldn’t break on the ice,” make the speaker’s plea sound pitiful. This is Vampire Weekend’s YOLO: a sad sap trying to pry his way into a married woman’s life.
Probably not the image Drake had in mind when he wrote “The Motto,” (the rap that sparked the YOLO phenomenon). But this is what Vampire Weekend does now – and they do it now more than ever. They take in culture and put out baroque riffs on it. They took some combination of a Billy Joel song, a Drake song, and the most popular hashtag on twitter, and they made it into part of an emotional, complex, bizarre album. A close listen to these guys yields interesting things.
This is a version of a piece in the Badger Herald‘s ArtsEtc. section titled “Vampire Weekend Blends Dark Themes, Cultural Commentary.”