Vampire Weekend makes its triumphant return on ‘Only God Was Above Us’

| Senior Sports Editor

(Joohee Kim | Student Life)

There’s always been a nostalgic quality to Vampire Weekend’s music. The indie-pop act, formed nearly 20 years ago by four Columbia University students in New York City, has never ceased to find a way to craft songs that make you feel as if you’ve already heard them before. 

Yet, with “Only God Was Above Us” (“OGWAU”), the band’s fifth album that was released on April 5, the group ventures into new territory. 

Gone are some of the spunky, bright, and radio-friendly tunes from its 2008 self-titled debut and most of the maximalist qualities of 2013’s “Modern Vampires of the City.” Gone, too, is much of the folk and jam-band experimentation from 2019’s “Father of the Bride,” the group’s first album without keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij. 

Instead, “OGWAU” is an album of contradictions. 

“With every album we have to push in two directions at once,” lead singer Ezra Koenig said in a recent New York Times interview. “Maybe with this record, it’s about both pushing into true maturity, in terms of worldview and attitude, but also pushing back further into playfulness. There’s a youthful amateurishness along with some of our most ambitious swings ever.”

“OGWAU” may not be the best Vampire Weekend record, but it is strong from start to end of its 47-minute running time.

The album includes a wide range of influences, from jazz and classical to hard-rock and Phil Spector-eque “Wall of Sound” production. But despite Koenig’s ever-youthful vocals, “OGWAU” begins as a far more mature album than what Vampire Weekend has previously produced. Its opener, “Ice Cream Piano,” sees Koenig as vulnerable as ever as he sings about the perils of a relationship. “Fuck the world, you said it quiet/No one could hear you, no one but me/Cynical, you can’t deny it/You don’t want to win this war ’cause you don’t want the peace,” he sings over amplifier frequency buzzing in the background.

Koenig’s anxieties permeate the rest of the record, albeit more through the band’s ever-quirky references and anecdotes than direct expression. “Classical” describes a bleak depiction of society, while “Gen-X Cops” centers on disillusionment among generations. Koenig’s ability to write from unique perspectives, many of them with clear cynicism, is a clear strength of “OGWAU.”

The album does not have a poppy hit single — no “A-Punk” or “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”  Rather, “Capricorn” is a bright yet wistful lead single that builds to a dramatic crescendo. “Pravda” is another clear standout, filled with lustful nostalgia from a fictional Russian immigrant who has relocated to Manhattan.

While the band lives and records in Los Angeles, “OGWAU” is an NYC-centric record, an ode to the city where the group got its start. A poem written by Koenig describes the influences of the album, highlighting “20th century New York City” and paying lip service to the Beastie Boys and the Wu-Tang Clan. One of the album’s singles, “Mary Boone,” focuses on the story of the famed NYC art dealer, while the lyrics of “The Surfer” describe New York City Water Tunnel No. 3, the infrastructure project that brings drinking water from upstate to the city.

The record comes to a dramatic conclusion with “Hope,” the nearly eight-minute-long closer that is two minutes longer than any other album track the band has ever released. With a descending piano riff that repeats on and off through the track and an orchestral buildup in its back end, “Hope” shifts and swells, while finding a way to avoid feeling as if it’s dragging on past its due.

Despite its optimistic title, there’s a sense of irony across the track. Lyrics focus on war, suicide, and conspiracy, detailing the fight against some unmentioned, invincible enemy. It’s left to the listener to wonder who that enemy is, but if the record’s title is any indication, it seems to be a spiritual force. As Koenig tells the listener “The enemy’s invincible/I hope you let it go.” The lyrics show he has come a long way from singing about Oxford commas and campus love.

While his vocals remain ever-youthful, Koenig just turned 40. So as Vampire Weekend departs on their U.S. Tour, the band’s future is unclear — one can’t help but wonder if this record will be the group’s last. But if it is indeed its final record, and “Hope” is its final song, it provides a fitting conclusion to the band’s impressive career. 

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