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Michael O’BrienApril 19, 2024
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Vampire Weekend have been metrophiles since the band’s inception.

The long-running rock group with a dizzying amount of influences may have dipped their toes into the waters of Cape Cod and riffed on the idiosyncrasies of California speak, but at heart, they’re New Yorkers.

They met at Columbia University, where they penned anthems like “A-Punk” and “Campus,” which appeared on their self-titled debut. On these tracks, a boyish Ezra Koenig sings of New York as a place for transient Ivy Leaguers in cross-country friendships and the painful wishing that a one-night stand with a classmate might be something more.

In the alternative music scene at that time, Vampire Weekend’s debut fit right in with other bubbly indie rock records from bands like Phoenix and Passion Pit, but always seemed to have more erudite lyrics than their contemporaries. 

As the band’s discography progressed, they underwent a sea change that moved away from the major key chords that they had mastered so well, opting for a more baroque sound, especially present on the macabre—but still as-inspired-by-New York as ever—“Modern Vampires of the City.”

The band’s most recent album and fifth overall is a return to a darker version of New York after 2019’s sun-soaked “Father of the Bride,” but instead of relaxing on Columbia’s South Lawn they’re now underneath the city’s streets.

The album cover depicts a rider on an old subway car littered in graffiti, reading a copy of the New York Daily News, whose cover story shares a title with this record: “Only God Was Above Us.” The headline from 1988 is taken from a passenger recounting the horror of the Aloha Airlines Flight 243 incident in which the plane’s roof was torn off during the flight.

Koenig seems intrigued by events that grab our collective consciousness, with war being the main shared human experience that the band explores on “Only God.” But why use old New York as a motif for an anti-war statement? Sure, it was the setting for many of Bob Dylan’s and Simon and Garfunkel’s pleas for peace, but why go back in 2024?

Speaking on the album’s touch of the city, Koenig told NPR “It had kind of, like, this old-school New York flavor, but there's a bunch of twists and turns within it.”

It seems that Koenig credits old New York for being the genesis of movements against war and a place of great creativity, but also condemns the people that inhabited it for setting up the next generation to fail. While New York is seen as a bastion of progress and liberalism, the band is digging beneath its surface to expose both the city and the country for some greater faults they possess. 

Accompanied by aged, grainy visuals of Coney Island in its music video, the first track from “Only God” is “Ice Cream Piano,” where Koenig accuses the song’s subjects of not wanting to “win this war cause you don't want the peace.”

Koenig also astutely highlights the class differences (something New Yorkers would know a thing or two about) that become much more pronounced during wars: “In times of war, the educated class knew what to do/ In times of peace, their pupils couldn't meet your baby blues/ 400 million animals competing for the zoo/ It's such a bleak sunrise,” he sings on “Classical.”

On these songs, Koenig asks us: Is the reason the war machine keeps churning simply because we can’t help but want it to do so?

Koenig might not have the same fire for peacemaking as activists like the Berrigan brothers, but he clearly feels some sort of responsibility to use his platform as a genre-defining artist in an age where there seems to be war everywhere.

These kinds of themes initially come off as surprising for a band that hasn’t explicitly been politically charged for much of its existence, but one only has to look to older V.W. songs like “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” to see undertones of social commentary in the band’s lyrics. 

Taking a stab at intergenerational relations on “Gen-X Cops” (which shares its title with a 1999 Jackie Chan movie; like I said, V.W. have a vast wealth of influences), Koenig sings:

“Dodged the draft, but can't dodge the war

Forever cursed to live insecure

The curtain drops, a gang of Gen X cops assembles

Trembling before our human nature.”

An observation on the differences between Gen X and millennials, the demographic Koenig himself belongs to, this track focuses on the vicious cycle of failing to dialogue with the population born before and after you: “Each generation makes its own apology,” he bites.

But “Only God Was Above Us” isn’t all angst. The band still knows not to take themselves too seriously, a hallmark of what’s defined their music for nearly two decades. 

Known to poke fun at their own Ivy League background, the band follows this sort of humor on “Prep School Gangsters,” whose title is inspired by a New York magazine article detailing how a crop of private school students found themselves rubbing elbows with poorer New Yorkers to sell drugs and make mischief.

“It's just somethin' people say/ They don't really feel that way/ Prep-school gangsters make the call/ As the summer turns to fall,” Koenig jests about these privileged youths returning back to school after a summer of hijinks.

Classism is something that’s always interested Koenig and the band, and their study of it here presents itself as a jocular breather from the gravity of politically-charged lyrical content much of the album contains.

The final track of “Only God,” “Hope,” is not so much a deep resolution of the feelings that Koenig struggles with on the album, but more of a shrugging of shoulders.

The prophet said we'd disappear/ The prophet's gone, but we're still here/ His prophecy was insincere/I hope you let it go,” Koenig urges the listener.

In today’s political and social climate, there seem to be false prophets on every corner, and Koenig isn’t saying that he’s the one you should be listening to with deep attention either. After all, this is someone who claimed that his greatest passion in life is “chilling.”

If “getting under the surface” is the main conceit for the album, both literally and figuratively, then it makes sense that Koenig’s father worked on the underground infrastructure of New York.

“My dad briefly was a tunnel inspector for the city, and he would tell me these stories about being down a mile underneath Manhattan, working with sandhogs, and that's a phrase, especially when you're a kid, you're not going to forget,” he said in his interview with NPR.

Burrowing underneath the city runs in Koenig’s blood, On “Only God Was Above Us,” this digging has manifested itself in taking a look under the hood of not only Manhattan, but the minds of warmongers, out-of-touch Gen Xers and the top 1 percent.

“Only God Was Above Us” is a definitive “we’re back” statement from Vampire Weekend, and whatever comes next for the band, you can bet that New York will be their muse.

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