Just days before Christmas 2014, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig dropped a rap verse. After 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, which won a Grammy and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the band was bigger than ever. So reemerging on a remix to iLoveMakonnen’s “Down 4 So Long” seemed like a curious choice (its parallels to Koenig’s earliest musical efforts notwithstanding). The verse is detached, droll, and decidedly of its time, nodding to the iCloud celebrity photo leak and the Shmoney dance. But if you peel away the layers of irony, it seems like Koenig, success aside, isn’t entirely comfortable in his own skin. “I hate myself, I think Americans are whack,” he mutters. “But other countries leave me feeling weird like afternoon naps.”
“Down 4 So Long (Remix)” is too small and jokey to register as a major moment in Vampire Weekend lore, but it signaled a nagging uncertainty in Koenig, at odds with the band’s air of infallibility post- Modern Vampires. I’ve thought about that uncertainty from time to time in the five years since, during which the band was mostly absent from the international spotlight. And it came to mind again listening to Father of the Bride, the long-gestating fourth Vampire Weekend album that arrives this week. FOTB isn’t unsure of itself; to the contrary, it is less self-conscious and eager to please than anything else to the band’s name. But the band has opted to forego any one direction in favor of a sort of stylistic restlessness. It bounces between sounds in an almost disorienting way, a pointed way of avoiding the sort of pandering pop that sometimes follows a consensus-building behemoth like Modern Vampires.
The band’s dynamics have been scrambled since the start of their recording hiatus in 2013. Koenig launched a Beats 1 radio show and created a Netflix animated series. From the spare parts of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, he crafted an instantly iconic hook for Beyonce’s Lemonade. His girlfriend, Rashida Jones, gave birth to their first son last summer. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Tomson released a solo album and bassist Chris Baio released two.
The most impactful development, though, was the departure of Rostam Batmanglij in early 2016. Rostam produced each of the band’s first three albums and was heavily involved in the band’s songwriting. He departed to launch a solo career, and focus on collaborations (the most notable being 2016’s underrated I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, an album with The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser).
Rostam remains on good terms with the band—he contributed to two songs here—but his exit marks a clean break from the purposeful grandeur of Modern Vampires. FOTB is freewheeling and idiosyncratic, it bounces from their trademark baroque pop to rock and country and folk, bending each new sound to their will. It has moody experimentalism (“My Mistake”) and shaggy, jittery psychedelia (“Sunflower”). It features no fewer than three sun-soaked Danielle Haim duets—one sounds like a Disney song in a good way (“We Belong Together”) and one in a bad way (“Married In a Gold Rush”). The third punctuates its verses with a stunning sample from Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line.
Despite their reputation as a band with a narrow skillset, Vampire Weekend albums have always been diverse, operating with an expansive thematic scope. In a few short years, they evolved from taking a pointed stance on comma etiquette to staring down God himself without inducing whiplash. The terrain FOTB stakes out lands somewhere between an advance and a retreat. The palette the band is working with has expanded, even as they temper their weighty thematic reach.
Modern Vampires was defined by Koenig’s fixation on death, and that’s no longer the sole focus on Father of the Bride. Yet this is still dense and purposeful lyricism. Koenig stuffs these songs with samples, references, and puzzles to decode. “Sympathy,” one of the album’s most richly candid moments, is darkly funny and caustic; “Spring Snow” and “Unbearably White” are poignant and vividly drawn. “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” tackles that classic pop music topic, the 1917 Balfour Declaration (which announced British support of Palestine as a “national home for Jewish people”, a fact that I was definitely aware of without consulting Wikipedia). Koenig can still be oblique and elusive, but his work here is rewarding if you take time to unpack it.
But for all that heaviness, Father of the Bride plays buoyant and breezy. Sometimes too breezy, even; pseudo-interludes like “Bambina” and “2021” are effective but fleeting, perhaps deserving of a chance to develop further. It makes for stretches that are curiously minor, as if the record is itching to shed its Big Event Album™ skin (and it is, probably; “On the last record, I had this slight feeling that we got a little bit too big,” Ezra confided to GQ recently). Koenig often sounds more inclined to hedge than to seriously commit. When, at the start of “Sympathy,” Ezra says, “I think I take myself too serious…it’s not that serious,” you can practically hear his ambitions deflating. Similar strains of self-deprecation lurk throughout nearly all of Father of the Bride; Koenig recruited Jerry Seinfeld for the “Sunflower” video, but his neuroses here feel more akin to George Costanza.
But its lightness on its feet comes to define FOTB; you never linger anywhere for too long. There’s a rolling momentum here that works to neutralize my nagging feeling that the album is probably a quarter longer than it needs to be. Whether or not that neutralization works is debatable. The unwieldy scope of FOTB—eighteen songs and an hour in length—gives it the space for its diversions. It also sets a ceiling for the album’s effectiveness, fostering a spottier success rate.
What works here, though, is pretty undeniable. Lead single “Harmony Hall” is a near-perfect distillation of the appeal of Vampire Weekend, beautifully composed and rich with emotion. “This Life” is one of the year’s most purely enjoyable pop songs. “Stranger” is similarly immediate, with horns that wouldn’t sound out of place on Moondance. “Hold You Now” and “Unbearably White” are understated and gorgeous. The chugging, Spanish-tinged “Sympathy” and the shapeshifting “Flower Moon” crackle with nervous energy. The self-assured pop sprinkled throughout FOTB works as an insurance policy against the album’s digressions from the Vampire Weekend formula; any risky experiment (such as the loungey slog of “My Mistake” or the cloying “Married In a Gold Rush,” which adopts a country cadence and cloaks it in electro-pop) is accompanied with a more straightforward appeal to listeners’ pleasure centers.
Father of the Bride finds much of its resonance by echoing the past. “Harmony Hall” recalls and loudly amplifies that desperate refrain from “Finger Back”: “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.” Later, Koenig admits that age and time won’t buy you the security you want; life’s struggles never really disappear, they just evolve. “Baby, I know hate’s always waiting at the gate, I just thought we locked the gate when we left in the morning,” he sings on “This Life” (which interpolates iLoveMakonnen, by the way). In a way, that’s a little like what he was saying on “Step” from their last record: “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth…age is an honor, it’s still not the truth.” It’s an uneasy acknowledgment that Koenig’s age and success haven’t brought him any closer to having it all figured out. Plenty of things have changed in six years, but there is a lot that hasn’t too.