review: Vampire Weekend’s ‘Father of the Bride’ is a graceful comeback
Vampire Weekend's music was causing cynicism and snark since before they even released an album, and that really never changed. They've been used as a punchline for their entire career, as an example of everything that's wrong with indie rock. They've been called too collegiate, too soft, too unoriginal, too unbearably white. And the rollout for their new album -- an 18-song double album called Father of the Bride, which is also their first in a very long six years that included so many rumors, vague teasers, and a two-hour-long loop of one guitar riff -- has been met with the most amount of Indie Album Rollout Fatigue I've seen this side of Everything Now. They're the band you love to hate, and right now, hating them feels easier than ever.
That is, unless you actually hit play on Father of the Bride. The cynicism and snark never changed, but Vampire Weekend's music has changed a lot. With all due respect to the punchy sounds of their breakthrough debut, they've gotten a lot better since then. Their last album, 2013's Modern Vampires of the City, was their best yet. It saw them expanding their sound in all kinds of appealing ways. They still had the zany, upbeat, "what people who don't listen to Vampire Weekend think Vampire Weekend sounds like" songs like "Finger Back," but they also had slower, darker, and more atmospheric songs, more unexpected melodic twists, and a greater depth to their lyricism. Sometimes when popular bands take a long time off after a career peak like that (not to mention lose a key member, though Rostam did contribute to the new album), they're doomed to make a bad followup album. But Vampire Weekend have beat the odds, and -- whether or not Father of the Bride is better than its predecessor -- they've at least made an album that continues to see them pushing forward. It was a long, grueling road to this album, and the announcement that it would be a double album was daunting, but Father of the Bride is just as easy to listen to as its predecessor. (And it's actually under an hour, which is pretty short for something advertised as a double album.) It makes the six years feel like no time at all, and it's equal parts enjoyable and inventive, so much so that picking on it just feels contrarian.
These outside factors like pressure from fans and snark from haters don't seem to have impacted the making of Father of the Bride -- though VW did do the equivalent of an "in b4..." comment by actually naming a song "Unbearably White" -- and those factors disappear from your own head when you listen to this LP. It's a deep, focused album, and it's Vampire Weekend's most limitless album yet. They incorporate anything from the church choirs of "Hold You Now" to the Grateful Dead-like solos of "Harmony Hall" to the Kacey Musgraves-inspired synth country of "Married In A Gold Rush" to the Latin-tinged frenzy of "Sympathy" to the sunny soul of "Sunflower" to a few Danielle Haim cameos and beyond, and they do it all while sounding like nobody other than Vampire Weekend. As much as the flourishes from outside of their usual comfort zone give the album a nice twist, some of the best moments are when Vampire Weekend are just casually being themselves. On "Harmony Hall," they channel the mentality of Jay-Z's Nas diss "You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song" and direct it at their former selves, realizing the potential of the "I don't wanna live like this, but I don't wanna die" line on 2013's "Finger Back" and turning it into one of FOTB's best choruses. They don't otherwise rely on specific old tricks, though. The summery jangle of "This Life," the wordless vocal runs of "Sunflower," and the very Paul Simon-sounding "Stranger" make for some of the most instantly satisfying moments, and they sound like they could've come out at almost any point in Vampire Weekend's career. They don't sound like any past VW songs in particular, but they feel like a hug from an old friend that you haven't seen in a while. They have a new haircut now, a new job in a new city, and maybe they've gained or lost some weight, but as soon as you get to talking it feels just like the old days.
Even if Vampire Weekend have overcome the pressure and the doubt that comes with a long gap between albums, the biggest hurdle may be how unfashionable their style of music has become in the time since Vampire Weekend last released an album. In 2013, guitar-oriented indie rock bands like Vampire Weekend still populated the zeitgeist, but now even some of the once-most-popular ones have either become more of a niche thing or embraced the more dominant pop and R&B sounds of the times. It remains to be seen how Father of the Bride fares in today’s musical climate, but it at least seems like it’s straddling a pretty solid middle ground between currently popular sounds and much more traditional ones. It’s got of-the-moment traits like contributions from Steve Lacy of the once-Odd-Future-affiliated neo-soul group The Internet, an interpolation of an iLoveMakonnen song (on “This Life”), and electronics and rhythms that feel influenced by ’10s alt-R&B, but the album also sees Vampire Weekend looking very far in the rearview. They’ve always been a guitar band, but they’ve never embraced noodly dad rock as much as they (successfully) do on this album. The aforementioned country influence would have felt unfashionably retro, if not for the recent Yeehaw boom, but Vampire Weekend embracing those sounds doesn’t feel as opportunist as Diplo doing it. They’ve also got some of the most sweeping string arrangements and triumphant horn sections of their career. The organic and the synthetic co-exist naturally on this album, often on the same song. Father of the Bride makes the case that guitars are still alive, but not in a Luddite "guitars are still alive!" way. Vampire Weekend have figured out how to converse with modern mainstream music without conforming to it.
And at this point, it might just be safe to start calling Vampire Weekend "mainstream" themselves. They're on a major label, and their upcoming tour is hitting arenas and large amphitheaters across North America. This once hotly-tipped and hotly-debated buzz band has graduated into one the biggest bands in America, and they got there without sacrificing anything about their sound. The fear was Father of the Bride would be their Everything Now but it's more like their The Suburbs, an easily enjoyable album with populist appeal that even the snobbiest indie snobs will have a tough time denying.
Father of the Bride officially comes out Friday (5/3) via Columbia.
We'll update with a stream once it's out. Meanwhile, you can hear a few of its songs below. UPDATE: Stream it below.
Also, catch Vampire Weekend on tour, including an all-day release party at NYC's Webster Hall on Sunday (5/5) with a full performance of the album, bagels, and pizza; and an MSG show in September.