Listening to Modern Vampires of the City is like watching a Woody Allen movie for the third time, only not half as enjoyable or enriching. There are a total of six songs on Vampire Weekend's highly anticipated third album that address doubts about God and religion. Six. In my book, that's enough to make it the theme of the album, and Ezra Koenig never lets you forget it. The tracks that aren't about God are full of affectionately obscure New York inside jokes ("Diane Young" references an anti-aging salon on the Upper East Side, and "Hudson" is all about the creepiness of Manhattan real estate), which, as Woody Allen can tell you, is infinitely fun for those of us who get them, but in the end is not enough to be fulfilling.
The album is inextricably entrenched in the background of a New York area Jewish upbringing - the lyric references could go on and on, but more on that later - so this might be a good time to note that I had one such upbringing: northern New Jersey, modern Orthodox. Anyone who's been through it knows there's plenty to be bitter about - hypocrisy, repression, narrow-mindedness, and all the guilt a human being can handle - and creating an album around that bitterness would hypothetically be fine, if it didn't come at the expense of the music. But in this case, it does.
The beginning of the album seems harmless enough - enjoyable, even. "Obvious Bicycle" is a faintly hopeful if not sleepy message to a friend fallen on hard times, a hymn of a jobless and disillusioned generation that offers a tone of hope but no solutions. "Unbelievers," one of the first songs we heard off MVOTC, is a declaration of pride in one's very nonbelief, in spite of half a world that believes in hell. The beat is insistent and the tone retro, giving it a Neon Bible vibe and breaking new ground for the band while retaining their usual cheery melodic sensibilities. The religious subject matter is lifted away for "Step" and "Diane Young," two more singles that were already well memorized by the time the album was released, and remain the two strongest tracks. The first is an exploration of aging through the lens of music: relationships and tastes shifting constantly in the ever-watchful backdrop of New York City. "Diane Young" embraces rockabilly boisterousness and modular experimentation, and the heavy subject matter, musings on the superficial stance we take on aging, is buoyed up by the surf-rock energy and lighthearted chorus.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest. "Don't Lie," for all its gorgeous arrangements, has an uncharacteristically indistinct melody, and "Hannah Hunt" and "Everlasting Arms" exhibit the same yawning indifference to musical dynamism, so starkly in contrast with the heavy themes of life and death they are trying to address. The second half of the album seems to be an increasingly frenzied expression of doubt in God and religion. Again, I have no problem with the subject matter in and of itself, but four songs in a row about the same topic - any topic - feels heavy-handed and even preachy. "Everlasting Arms," "Finger Back," "Worship" You," and "Ya Hey." Did no producer take a look at the track order and think, "Maybe we should intersperse the songs about religion with something else?" I suppose one could make a similar complaint about their older material ("Why all these songs about English class?"), but something about this choice seems strangely over-the-top, especially when you consider the grace and subtlety with which they express doubts about maturity, friendship, worldliness, and love.
Consider the spoken lines in "Finger Back," after lyrical memories of a guilt-laden religious upbringing in Hudson Valley: "Sing, 'next year in Jerusalem' / You know, the one at 103rd and Broadway? 'Cause this Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop / And why not? Should she have averted her eyes and just stared at the laminated poster of the Dome of the Rock?" The number of references that only New Yorkers will get is sometimes staggering, but this is a particular example that hit home for me, and not in a good way. A friend who was listening to the album with me snorted, "I bet he thinks he's solving the crisis in the Middle East." And the cynicism is not unfounded. By reducing religious hypocrisy and feuding countries to a cute vignette, Vampire Weekend tries to say everything but leaves us with nothing. It almost feels as if Koenig is arguing with an imaginary opponent. I have to be careful what I say here, because these lyrics are obviously coming from a personal place, but the over-emphasis of this little spoken centerpiece feels tacky, trite, and meaningless. I came for a rock record, not a sermon.
"Worship You" seemingly brings this sermon to a fever pitch, with Koenig's lyrics being spit out at breakneck speed in a torrent of pure frustration at ritual worship. "Only in the way you want it / Only on the days you want it / Only with the understanding / Every single day you want it!" In a way, this song could be seen as a Part 2 of "Finger Back," a more frantic expression of the same sentiments. But it's followed immediately by "Ya Hey," yet another song about the hypocrisy of God and religion ("Through the fire and through the flames / You won't even say your name / Only 'I am that I am'"), and though it cleverly turns a name of reverence into a grating chipmunk chorus, I found myself rolling my eyes. We had already gotten the point in the first five songs about God, and this one feels not only lyrically unnecessary, but musically boring.
Is this a musically enjoyable record? Yes. "Hudson" and "Step" exhibit the true extent of this band's blossoming new stage of songwriting, and feel exciting and fresh. But the soporific sentiments about God? That feels less like a band that has graduated Ivy League, and more like a band reading scrawled lyrics from their 10th grade history notes.