“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 Smalls and nothing like hip-hop. It just sounds bizarre.
Before Contra, on Vampire Weekend’s 2008 self-titled debut album, Koenig wrote a song called “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” in which he copies the line, “Absolute horror,” from a Metallica song also titled “One.” Metallica’s “One” is about a soldier slowly bleeding to death, while Vampire Weekend’s is about an Ivy League kid whose sweater is out of style.
Vampire Weekend has been doing this since before they blew up: taking a scrap of music from as far away as B.I.G. or Metallica and repurposing it into a song in their strange, but catchy, brand of baroque pop. Songs like “Giant” and “One” were subtle. But, as of late, the band is taking more risks with their sound, and it has a growing habit of appropriating music from unexpected places. If Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, doesn’t sound like the old Vampire Weekend, that’s because Koenig and company are 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. It riffs on Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl,” which itself samples saxophonist George Washington, Jr.’s cover of “Aubrey,” by Bread. So, the song is already a stack of musical reinterpretations when Vampire Weekend’s keyboardist/producer Rostam Batmanglij adds something of his own. Batmanglij 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.
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;” 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 more solemn than Vampire Weekend’s other two albums. While the self-titled album tackles comma usage, and Contra mocks a suburban girl’s booshie, all-natural toothpaste, Modern Vampires is about death, growing up, death, God and more 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 Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” (an OK comparison considering how much Koenig wrote on his college blog about 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 character 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, such as, “Young hips shouldn’t break on the ice,” make the singer’s plea sound rather 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,” but this is what Vampire Weekend does – and they do it now more than ever: They take in culture and put out interesting music. They took some combination of a Billy Joel song, a Drake song and the most popular hashtag on Twitter and made an emotional, complex, even bizarre album – in the best way. Vampire Weekend isn’t just great background music. Listening close will reveal interesting cultural details.