Vampire Weekend's Contra: A Grand Still Doesn't Come for Free

I've had a metaphor floating around in my head for a while--I don't know what other people idly think about, but I spend a good amount of my free time thinking of metaphors (yes, ladies, I'm single!)--and since I am one of the privileged few on the Internet who has a blog, I figured I'd send it up the flagpole to see if it gets a salute.

Vampire Weekend released Contra at some point in the past month, I guess (research!), and it's fantastic. Lots of other people think so, too, and people who pay for music paid for Contra more than any other album this past week. This could hypothetically buy the guys in Vampire Weekend a lot of boat shoes, except they don't wear those anymore--they are no longer New England prepsters, but are rather totally California now. Hence, Contra.

Like I said, the album is wonderful. There are some holdover complaints from the last one--the silly one that all of their songs are watered-down Graceland outtakes, or something similar; and the one I see more often, that their lyrics are pretentious and that they are, uh, lame for singing about the upper-middle class. What I like so much about Vampire Weekend, though, is precisely the marriage of those two things--the vaguely African backbeats combined with the alternating celebrations and critiques of the snobbish and the privileged. For whatever reason, it resonates--maybe because it's so different.

The backlash over these first two discs reminds me not of the backlash against The Strokes, who seem to be the popular comparison--over-hyped, crossover appeal, music hijackers--but rather The Streets. When Original Pirate Material came out, mundanity had never met dirty UK "garage" dance music so overtly or so forcefully (I assume so, at least--I don't know two shits-worth about "garage" dance music, or grime, or whatever--the point is I had never heard such vernacular, everyday "rapping" over dance beats). Some people called it a gimmick, or phony, or uninteresting--why sing about geezers, drinking brandy, drinking ale at the pub?  But to me, the lyrics rang sincere (as in, this is what this man's life is about and he is writing about it--isn't that the point?) and the juxtaposition was wonderful.

Reaction to Vampire Weekend's debut: ditto that last sentence. It didn't sound like anything else. It was excellent, exciting, other words that start with "exc"--excalibur. Sure, Vampire Weekend's self-titled album was excalibur. Quote me on that.

Then comes the sophomore album. Rather than dialing down (dialing what, exactly? The phone number of intensity?), The Streets increase and hyperbolize the odder, more polarizing aspects of Original Pirate Material on A Grand Don't Come for Free. Here is a concept album about not having any money, living in a crappy apartment, and being unable to find a girlfriend. Also, it's a rap album, but all of the beats are "club bangers." Also, the rapping is more than ever just Mike Skinner talking over the beat. The rhyming is sloppier, more telegraphed. The subject matter is more mundane.

The album is also better. The niche has been exploited and expanded; Skinner identified what was great and beguiling about Original Pirate Material, fixated on it, and delivered, like a baby from out of his musical vagina, a terrifically strange album.

And now here is Vampire Weekend's Contra, and oh, A Grand Still Don't Come for Free, my friends. "Horchata" is obviously the gloriously outstretched middle finger to the lyric haters--but what is really impressive about "Horchata" is not the rhyming (I asked my good friend Andrew Lloyd Webber, and, indeed, "Horchata" rhymes with neither "Balaklava" nor "Masada"); no, the lyrical American Idol winner here is "Here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten," and here's why, literary detectives:

If something was lacking on self-titled Vee Dub, it was the emotional resonance. The lyrics often descended into--gasp!--snark and didn't seem to have any love behind them. Snarking on someone is fine if they totally punked you, but where was the desperation, the sadness? I'm talking about Oxford Comma (the only thing I see close to a revelation is the nearly-swallowed "Through the pain/I always tell the truth"); the heartless "I Stand Corrected"; and "Walcott," which is apparently about a zombie infestation in Cape Cod.

All of these songs are damn catchy, but one couldn't help but think how they might have been different had the lyric writers thrown just one heartbreaking couplet in there--the music, with its dramatic swells, and Ezra Koenig's singing voice, which always sounds as though it is sadly pleading for something even when it is not, are both perfectly suited for a non-cryptic song about heartbreak, or loneliness, or betrayal. Not that Vampire Weekend needs to cover James Blunt, or whatever, but that, I always wished that within these stinging satires was that tinge of love to make the song

Sorry, I got distracted and have no idea what I was writing about and I am not going back to look. The point is, there are some really nice, strong, emotionally resonant lyrics in Contra that were missing in Self-Titulado. Nevermind the juxtaposition of music and lyrics; how about the juxtaposition of lyrics and lyrics on "White Sky":

Around the corner
The house that modern art built
I ask for modern art
To keep it out the closets
The people who might own it
The sins of pride and envy
And on the second floor
The Richard Serra Skate Park

You waited since lunch
It all comes at once

Terrific. This is what Vampire Weekend should be doing, if they continue with the upper-crust skewer-show that has made them successful so far. If they are going to name-drop, they might as well emotion-drop, too. I know that sounds, like, totally gay, but shit, man, it makes the songs, and it makes the album. Singing praise of Jackson Crowder is only fun if we have a reason to sing in praise.


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