Only God Was Above Us

Ezra Koenig begins Only God Was Above Us speaking, it seems, to just one person. Against a blur of amplifier hum and a tentative guitar strum, he sounds thin and reedy, almost petulant, a little bit doomy. “‘Fuck the world,’” Koenig sings softly, “You said it quiet/No one could hear you/No one but me.”

This hushed distortion opens Vampire Weekend’s fifth album, where Koenig and his bandmates, Chrises Baio and Tomson, gaze longingly at the past to find more questions than answers. A chief concern is history, and where to fit within it, but, ultimately, Vampire Weekend itself is the focus of Only God Was Above Us. It is the band’s most overtly self-referential release, a collage of signature sounds and motifs dotted with allusions. It feels new and comfortable, regularly elegant and charming, calm and comforting, and, at times, foreboding. And just a bit worried.

This is to say that Only God Was Above Us is also the most honest album Vampire Weekend have made, an encapsulation of what the band does best, melodic and abstruse in Koenig’s own masterful way. Take the two obvious callbacks on “Connect,” which recreates Tomson’s “Mansard Roof” drum fill and fits in keyboards that call to mind Contra’s runaway hit “Holiday.” The song is a lively reverie about lost days in New York, but slightly askew in its memories and mood. Koenig and co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid capture the strangeness with a track that takes the signature Vampire Weekend sounds and twists them to be a little jazzy, sometimes a little electronic, a beat away from melting down entirely. The result is something like indie deja vu, the sense that we’ve heard this before but can’t at all place it.

Though the band members themselves have long lived in Los Angeles, New York still looms large for Vampire Weekend. Koenig, Baio, and Tomson all grew up in or around the city and, with ex-bandmate but current contributor Rostam Batmanglij, famously coalesced at Columbia University. Being away from New York, however, offers a new perspective: From a distance, the city appears as a decaying giant, inescapably beholden to its past and all the ghosts who’ve passed through. Simply by naming New Yorkers of old—the late Russian-born journalists Henry and Ludmilla Nikitina Shapiro, their daughter, Irina Shapiro Corten, the famed gallery owner Mary Boone, even a defunct tie shop—Koenig’s always-vibrant world of name-drops observes the strangeness of living in vast shadows.

Vampire Weekend previously portrayed New York at its bleakest on “Hudson,” a rotting dirge about the passage of time. The Modern Vampires of the City song now has a spiritual successor in “Gen-X Cops,” another rare minor-key entry that the band has been trying to make work since 2012. On “Hudson,” Koenig looked at place names and real estate listings and recognized the immense consequences of prior generations’ actions. On the upbeat yet dour “Gen-X Cops,” he reckons with the idea that he’s becoming the old guard now. “Each generation makes its own apology,” he sings, knowing it’s only an excuse for whatever trouble he’s destined to cause, the pearls he’s bound to clutch. The shift in perspective represents, perhaps, that of Koenig and his bandmates as they age: no longer youthful idealists critiquing the world around them, but resigned adults grappling with their places within it.

It may seem tedious to draw lines from the new songs back through the Vampire Weekend catalog, but that’s much of the point. Only God Was Above Us focuses often on legacy, history, and days of yore, and the songs are also meant to sound familiar: “Gen-X Cops” fills the role of the ska-influenced romp (“A-Punk,” “Cousins,” “Diane Young”); “Mary Boone” brings back the choral ambitions of “Ya Hey”; and “Prep-School Gangsters” shares the pensive, baroque stylings of “Taxi Cab,” to name a few. When Koenig sings, “You’ve never seen a starry night/You saint,” on “The Surfer,” it’s impossible not to think of the “Ya Hey” lines “Oh, You saint/America don’t love You.” Even the instant-classic refrain of “Classical”—“Untrue, unkind and unnatural”—might leave you singing: “Peter Gabriel too.”

As much as the album embraces the past, it’s also about how hard it is to really get your arms around it. The band’s first album was jubilant: young men in boat shoes encountering a world of privilege, enjoying its spoils with a crooked eye. On Contra, they were even more suspicious of the world of excess, wondering what it was all for. By Modern Vampires of the City, Koenig had moved on from mere materiality and wanted to get to the bottom of everything. And, after some time away from such heavy and heady questions, he returned as a proud Grateful Dead disciple, jamming about the Earth and love on Father of the Bride. Here, he asks, “Now is it strange I can’t connect?” He and his bandmates answer the question musically, suggesting that you can come close, but you can’t ever go back.

It helps that this band is so ripe for self-mythology; it’s long been impossible to discuss Vampire Weekend without “discussing Vampire Weekend,” and all the commentary on privilege, appropriation, and identity that’s come with it. Now, they’re the ones “discussing Vampire Weekend,” but on their own terms, making songs about history and who writes it (the cruelest among us), who determines class ascension (the people who lock the door as soon as they get the keys to the penthouse), and what happens when you’ve gotten everything you thought you wanted (you’re still pretty empty).

The one song on Only God Was Above Us with no true precedent is the foreboding, epic, eight-minute closer, “Hope.” It’s the band’s longest song, and it sounds almost nothing like anything else Vampire Weekend have recorded. Koenig’s “Hope” lyrics are wrathful—“The embassy’s abandoned now/The flag that flew is on the ground/The painting burned, the statue drowned,” goes one verse—but his gentle voice brings contrast, making the whole thing sound like a campfire melody. Tying the track together is the tender plea, “I hope you let it go.” From a younger band, it could sound naive, an abdication of duty. With age, it’s more like forgiveness.

The final song of Only God Was Above Us feels of a piece with the album’s opener, “Ice Cream Piano,” as they both deal in “I” and “you” and come off as conversations Koenig is having with himself. “We’re all the sons and daughters/Of vampires who drained the old world’s necks,” he sings, still searching for a peace that’s yet to come. The band’s name, of course, is not especially Draculian, just a nod to the title of a home movie that Koenig made one summer and repurposed for the quartet, another in-joke in a history full of them. Nevertheless, there is something poignant about invoking the bloodsuckers to examine who they have been. The past is what it is, in all its richness and stature; acknowledge it and discover something new within.

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Vampire Weekend: Only God Was Above Us