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Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride Review

May 9, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
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Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride Review  

1.Hold You Now
2. Harmony Hall
3. Bambina
4. This Life
5. Big Blue
6. How Long?
7. Unbearably White
8. Rich Man
9. Married In A Gold Rush
10. My Mistake
11. Sympathy
12. Sunflower
13. Flower Moon
14. 2021
15. We Belong Together
16. Stranger
17. Spring Snow
18. Jerusalem, New York, Berlin

It’s time to do away with conventional wisdom. After all, the roll out of Vampire Weekend’s reassuringly eccentric fourth album was marred by so many warning signs and bad omens that pessimism proved unavoidable. Now let’s see, there was a cavernous six-year lay off between albums to contend with (that’s bad enough), but, forebodingly for an already nervous fanbase, there was the news that the official release of Father Of The Bride (then known as Mitsubishi Macchiato) was going to be pushed back from 2018 to 2019.  Still, all this talk of delay and distance pales in significance next to the departure of permanent band member, lead producer and creative counterbalance Rostam Batmanglij (although, rest assured, he is a sporadic contributor to Father Of The Bride).

Suffice to say fans were a touch trepidatious and that’s before you factor in frontman and principle songwriter Ezra Koenig’s move from the East to the West Coast and the announcement that the band would be returning with a double album chocked full of guest stars (often a byword for indecision and excess). It was easy enough to construct a narrative of impending doom with Ezra focused on producing his own Anime series (Neo Yokio) and becoming a fixture on Beats 1 with his wonderfully irreverent Time Crisis series. To the more anxious among us, it felt as if Vampire Weekend’s had taken their eyes off the road, just as the wheels were beginning to fall off.

Mercifully, it’s time to lay these rock and roll clichés to bed once and for all. Vampire Weekend are not starring in a remake of Spinal Tap, nor are they fulfilling some fateful narrative of distraction and disinterest. Father Of The Bride could not be further from an overwrought, underbaked failure. In fact, if their intrepid, occasionally wonky, expectation side-stepping return is defined any one sentiment it is not hesitation, but joy and a genuine love for the art of music making itself.

Ezra recently explained that, when it came to double albums, he saw Father Of The Bride as closer to the coherent tonal and narrative approach of Bruce Springsteen’s The River than the divergent creative delirium of The Beatles’ The White Album. Well, that may be the intent, but Ezra could not have misjudged this project more profoundly. While the lyric sheet certainly weaves a cogent tale, Vampire Weekend’s latest cannot help but recall the blossoming creativity, playful humor and loveable nostalgic charm of The Beatles’ classic. Not only are there some direct comparisons to the Fab Four (“Flower Moon’s” harmonies so strongly echo “Because” and the album is dotted with a host of McCartney-esque melodies), but sly echos of The White Album’s genre hopping freedom, embrace of campy-conversational-country and even The Beatles knack for hiding scathing satires within harmless little ditties (“Rich Man”) abound.

It is important to stress, while there are tonal echoes of both McCartney and Lennon throughout, what makes Father Of The Bride more reminiscent of The White Album than The River is its inherent freedom, looseness and spontaneity. By all accounts Vampire Weekend and producer Ariel Rechtshaid slaved over some of these tracks for years (notably singles “Harmony Hall” and “This Life”), but that sense of studious intensity never translates to listening experience. Vampire Weekend have crafted an effortless explosions of at times irreverent, anxious, goofball, optimism.

Intriguingly, while the album emanates from Ezra Koenig’s pen, it bears the stamp and sharp dividing lines of conflicting creative collaboration. There are wild, near irreconcilable sonic and tonal shifts as different artists leave their imprint on Father Of The Bride. Danielle Haim provides backing vocals across the album, but stars on three beautifully constructed conversational country homages. The winsome romance of “Hold You Now” is the rare opener that manages to serve as an airy tearjerker – with Danielle and Ezra’s verses separated by a delicious distorted choral sample from The Thin Red Line soundtrack. At the other end of the spectrum, the duo playful spar on the pleasingly sappy “We Belong Together”. The kind of late album ditty that recalls both “awh shucks” Macca and The White Stripes at their most devilishly wholesome. After exchanging cutesy okie pleasantries (“don’t be opaque, it’s clear we go together”), Ezra pulls the track towards its coy sting in the tail (“Hallejulah your still mine, all I did was waste your time”). It’s a trick Ezra will return to, playing it dumb and stumbling into a plainspoken line that cuts  towards a deeper unspoken apprehension.

The pick of a delightful bunch is “Married In A Gold Rush”. Danielle and Ezra prove a perfect match. His register is full of lilting and pinched eccentricity, while her vocal provides an earth base. If he carries a weight of fay, intellectual, alien tenderness, then she brings the unfussy grit. Like the best country tracks of yesteryear, the lines melt into one another and roll off the tongue like eternal truisms (or good old-fashioned common sense). What makes “Married In A Gold Rush” so poignant (aside from its arch blend of tones both ancient and modern) is the sense of unease present within Ezra’s lyrics. From the opening line (“something’s happening in the country and the government’s to blame”) to the imploring final verse (“time to disavow the gold rush and the bitterness that’s flourished in its wake”) there is an unmistakable darkness slithering in at the corners of this darling pseudo-ballad.  It’s easy to laugh as Ezra and Danielle play off each other on the delectably dippy chorus (“who’s your baby?” “Well if you don’t know by now”), but it would be unwise to take the track at face value. While it is tempting to fall in love with the pair, I find my self-worrying for their future as the ride off toward an uncertain the sunset.

If the Danielle Haim duets prove wonderfully unexpected, then Steve Lacy’s suite is simply staggering. In a wonderfully sequenced section, Ezra Koenig takes a jazzy turn playing the heartbroken and painfully isolated pianist on “My Mistake”. The self-recriminatory track sees the singer wash up on the shore in a pitiful state, whispering: “It was cold, it was dark/I was foolish and late/hoping for kindness was my gravest mistake”. It’s an unmistakable low and, within seconds of the track’s tragic coda, Steve Lacy’s deadpan booms out: “I think I took myself too serious, it’s not that serious” and Father Of The Bride embarks on a vicious left turn, leaves orbit, ingests a whole baggy of mushrooms, a tab of LSD for good measure and somehow ends up on a wild road trip down to Mexico – and a hell of a lot more, seemingly, all at once.

Handclaps explode into life. A Spanish/Jewish guitar line bursts forth. Ezra is suddenly soaring and doing a nifty impression of Kurt Vile’s “Pretty Pimping” as a keyboard choir howls and Vampire Weekend lead us into a dark-purple filtered dance of death-come-re-birth. “Sympathy” is a revelation. Ezra has made his mistake, wasted years of his life, torn his heart to shreds, but fuck it, sometimes its better to dance with the devil and scream: “I didn’t have your sympathy, but I know where to start, explaining to you patiently that the one who broke my heart, would have broken yours”. Entire paragraphs could be written on the delicious marriage of standing bass and handclaps, but suffice to say, this track needs to be heard, not written about.

We have alighted on the much-touted “jammier” portion of the record as Steve Lacy’s red-hot fire guitar lick introduces “Sunflower” – another pretty ditty masquerading as a full-fledged chart single. In the context of an album that rides high on commitment and crashes hard on the rocks of heartbreak, “Sunflower” stands as a palette cleanser: a chance to shake it all off before drifting away like a dandelion seed on the wind to the buoyant psych-folk of “Flower Moon”.

In this atmosphere of freewheeling creativity, mini-suites and radical juxtaposition, some of the previously heard material is given new life. In the choppy and unexpected seas of Father Of The Bride, “Unbearably White” is reborn as a soothing port in the storm. The luscious tones recall both “Golden Slumbers” and “Albatross” while featuring instrumental choices that those rockers would never have dreamed of. Ezra’s vocal is unadorned and tender; the beneficiary of multiple listens, the track captures a daydreamer’s hopeless regrets.

No doubt many pundits will suggest that Vampire Weekend would have been better served to trim down and edit this collection into something more coherent. There’s certainly merit in that argument, but so much of this record’s joy  and exuberance comes from its detours and asides. The decision to let “Big Blue’s” lone lyric sink in, breathe and travel the world in two brief minutes is a wise one – and it’s equally shrewd to let the infectious “Bambina” jut, strut and shimmy its way to a premature demise. These are less songs, than ideas jotted down on the back of postcards – and, like the best postcards, they are overstuffed with conflicting snapshots of sights, sounds and inspirations.

Of course, in these strained and tense times where, in Ezra’s words, it’s felt “like Halloween since Christmas 2017”: there’s one thing the world needs from a Vampire Weekend album and that’s gorgeous pop songs. Thankfully, the band have over-delivered. The crunchy guitars and rave piano of “Harmony Hall” and “This Life’s” wonderfully plain spoken tale of getting away Scott free with bumbling through life, are already the conquering alternative and rock charts, but there’s plenty more to be found on this LP. It will be a crime if the aforementioned “Married In A Gold Rush” is not released a single (hell “Old Country Road” is the biggest song in the world right now, Vampire Weekend can risk a folksy diversion.) “How Long?” is a less obvious choice, but an intriguing option nonetheless. Its creeping 90-hip hop bass line is enlivened by an ever evolving stack of sonic interlopers as Ezra unleashes some of his most immediate verses to date (“tough choice, don’t make me laugh/my life’s a joke, your life’s a gas”).

If there’s a criticism to be made of this marauding mirage of uneasy sonic bedfellows somehow united by 70s soft rock, it’s that it ends with something of a whimper. “2021” is one of the rare tracks that is better served as a stand alone. Its clever marriage of a Japanese ambient sample and a misty eyed reminiscence never quite feels at home on Father Of The Bride – like an awkward, but inspiring island floating just off the coast of a vibrant barely-united mass (insert your own Brexit joke here).  “Stranger” is the highlight of side four, another sweetie pie should-be-single that strips away the complexities as we approach the final straight. Still, confined within its punchy-driving confines are emotional shades of grey. Ezra puts himself out to pasture: mourning the loss of his independence while embracing the new adventure of union.

The real dip comes with the last two tracks. There’s nothing wrong with either “Spring Snow” or “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”, in fact, both efforts have powerful understated melodies that lend the collection a sense of finality. And yet, Father Of The Bride is so thrillingly exuberant and unexpected, that it leaves these two closing numbers feeling painfully traditional. “Spring Snow” is somewhat undermined by a dated use of auto-tune (a hang over from Modern Vampires… and the post-My Beautiful Dark Fantasy era in general). “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” is better and leaves this album of blithe optimism-underwritten-by-creeping-doubt with one last lingering question mark (“young marriages are melting and dying where they lay”).

Ezra spends so much of this album playing the hapless putz who almost accidentally stumbles into tender romantic poetry, that it’s impossible to shake the feeling that he is in fact falling into a pitiless trap. He’s clearly been heartbroken (“My Mistake”) and that memory informs both his highest highs and his most earnest commitments going forward. This unease never makes for an uneasy listen. Father Of The Brides is an uplifting creative cavalcade, but it does paint the picture of a man who wants to wholeheartedly commit, but who can never quite let go. Still, for all his ache and apprehension, Vampire Weekend are determined to live in the moment and Father Of The Bride is still defined by joy. It might be fleeting, but it’s not false – or, as Ezra so beautifully puts it: “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now”.

8.5
The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Strange, serene, wonky and weird, Vampire Weekend's long awaited comeback (entirely unintentionally) recalls The Beatles barmy White Album with its stark creative diversions, nostalgic asides and sublime control of melody. Could it be trimmed and streamlined? Of course, but would miss the point entirely. Father Of The Bride is an explosion of unkempt creativity that just so happens to tell the story of a hopeless romantic's attempt, however unconvincingly, to stave off a deep underlying sense of foreboding and commit.
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Vampire Weekend, David Hayter