Vampire Weekend – ‘Only God Was Above Us’ review: back to the Big Apple

Vampire Weekend – ‘Only God Was Above Us’ review: back to the Big Apple

Of all the ambitious bands to emerge from New York in the early 2000s, Vampire Weekend are one of the few to attain unrelenting relevance and interest in their new material in the decades since. Never underdelivering or surrendering to the fatal comfort of recreating their early success, each record that followed their 2008, self-titled debut has maintained an element of innovation, while also keeping a firm grasp on the kaleidoscopic soundscapes that have been central to their appeal.

It’s not to say they’ve been widely liked – an accused air of prep-school pretentiousness has proved to be divisive – yet it’s a testament to their unwillingness to care that they’ve attained a longevity not afforded to many of their peers. Perhaps an element of that comes down to their inherent brightness: their jangly, wonky pop rhythms; frontman Ezra Koenig’s gentle vocals murmuring abstract observations on youth; the plethora of easily accessible hits that coexist alongside his more poignant, elusive songwriting.

In many ways, their first album with most of their original lineup in almost a decade following 2019’s pleasing if detached ‘Father Of The Bride’ (an Ezra Koenig solo album in all but name that was influenced by a move to California), seems to exist in a different canon; it lacks, purposely perhaps, the more obvious hooks present on previous albums. It’s in no way a complete reinvention: there’s elements of 2013’s ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’’s anxious outlook, and more concise takes on the joyful, jam band essence that defined ‘Father Of The Bride’. Mostly, though, ‘Only God Was Above Us’ is its own sensory overload, heavy on distortion, hip-hop rhythms and urgent drum fills. On ‘Mary Boone, for example, a simple twinkling piano motif is woven throughout to deliver moments of peace amid the chaos.

An ode to 20th century New York (a tone set by the rusting subway carriage on the album’s cover), ‘Only God Was Above Us’ is a record that emits endless warmth, seeking to capture the atmosphere of a long-gone era that once promised endless possibility. It’s a time now painfully out of reach, both in the music industry and wider culture. “When ‘Contra’ came out, I knew the context it was made in; when this album comes out, I only know it in terms of Vampire Weekend’s career.” Koenig said in a recent interview. It makes sense then that as an album it doesn’t seem to strive to belong anywhere, instead seeking to exist on its own terms.

It may also be why Koenig, now nearing 40, offers a series of musings each more sombre than the last. “I know what lies beneath Manhattan” he sings on ‘Pravda’, with the jaded certainty of someone looking back from the other side. ‘Gen X Cops’, a track the band revealed they’ve slowly whittled away at for years, contains one of the most memorable, and timely, lyrics on the record: “each generation makes its own apology”, he sighs. It’s also perhaps the closest thing on ‘Only God Was Above Us’ to a traditional Vampire Weekend earworm, though it follows the unpredictability of the rest of the album, opening with a grating guitar riff before dispersing into an experimental jazz piano solo. Elsewhere ‘Capricorn’, a subdued demi-ballad, is undeniably one of their greatest songs yet, defined by its wearisome advice of “you don’t have to try”.

Lyrically, then, it’s a record characterised by its pessimism, yet musically it’s among their most joyful. ‘Mary Boone’ (named after an influential New York art dealer who was convicted of tax evasion in 2019) with its bright piano, British R&B sample, and hopeful choral flourishes offers the kind of maximalism inherent to Vampire Weekend. It’s an ambitious concoction of sounds that don’t seem to exist in the same realm, yet intertwine naturally beneath Koenig’s increasingly sullen vocals.

Despite its sentimental homages to the history of their hometown, ‘Only God Was Above Us’ isn’t a nostalgic album. Rather than adopting an overly rose tinted view of the past to cope with the present, Koenig seems to be fine with embracing that things just aren’t that great. And, in some ways, this brand of thinking can be interpreted as optimism – especially for a band intrinsically linked to the ‘before times’. There’s a ring of distinctly millennial buoyancy in their early records, an attitude that has crashed and burned in the years since. And, while 2019’s ‘Father Of The Bride’ offered sun-soaked musings on the dread of modern life, this time around they seem to have, albeit reluctantly, found peace with all we can’t change.

It’s why final track ‘Hope’ marks a poignant ending to an album full of fatalism. Koenig carefully lists a spiral of depressing modern truths – “The prophet’s gone but we’re still here/His prophecy was insincere” and “The enemy’s invincible”, each time concluding with “I hope you let it go” in place of a solution. An anthem for passive acceptance, it’s a sprawling almost eight-minute track that speaks to a wider lack of control that’s permeated the culture in the past few years. And, hearing Koenig’s voice draw this resolution is all the more harrowing, given it once soundtracked an era of seemingly boundless optimism.


Release date: April 5, 2024
Record label: Columbia

The post Vampire Weekend – ‘Only God Was Above Us’ review: back to the Big Apple appeared first on NME.

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