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Vampire Weekend’s ‘Only God Was Above Us’ is a Harsh Beautiful Record For a Harsh Beautiful World

Vampire Weekend’s recordings have frequently been characterized by a kind of tidiness, a clean fusion of Ezra Koenig’s pop songwriting smarts and the group’s instrumental economy. The band’s new album Only God Was Above Us offers something different, pivoting away from the brighter, jammier aspects of 2019’s Father of the Bride with a decided bent toward experimentation and surprising, often harsh, new textures. The results showcase a band that, nearly two decades in, is willing to issue a challenge to its fans and produce a soundtrack for a reality that is teeming with noise and discord.

Opening song “Ice Cream Piano” announces itself with lo-fi buzz and then repeatedly shifts in tempo before winding out its final vamp as one of the noisiest things they’ve ever produced. The single “Classical” has a rave-style breakbeat and distorted curlicues of electric guitar, but still manages to convey a feeling of lushness with some alternating atonal/pretty stabs of piano and free-jazz saxophone. “Mary Boone,” a nod to the famed New York gallery owner, lifts the drum loop from Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” but adds in a towering choral arrangement to bolster the rhythm and melody.

Koenig’s keen sense of song structure remains a fixture, anchoring these compositions from drifting too far off into weirdness. The languid groove of “Capricorn” comes bathed in reverb and takes a dub-like approach to mixing, as instrumental accompaniment drops in and out without warning, but Koenig’s major-key chorus is as instantly hummable as it is empathetic. “Too old for dying young, to young to live alone/Sifting through centuries for moments of your own,” he sings. Likewise, “Connect” features dizzying piano arpeggios that smear together and hard-panned instrumental solos that dance in and out of the mix, but it faithfully returns to its strangely hooky, more reserved chorus. 

As ever, Koenig’s lyrics are dense with allusions — obscure bits of New York history, relatives in foreign lands, and sandhogs working in underground tunnels. But there’s also a sense of reckoning with the past and the present. “Classical” and “Ice Cream Piano” both reference how power can normalize inhumanity or bestow unearned privilege on future generations. “We’re all the sons of vampires who drank the old world’s neck,” Koenig sings at one point. 

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Occasionally, as in “Pravda” and “Gen-X Cops,” those lyrics get subsumed beneath crashing walls of noise, rendering them almost unintelligible where it might’ve made sense to pull back. Other times, the production choices are sudden and jarring — horns that bleat out startling warnings in “The Surfer,” a heavy push of one too many faders in a couple other instances — in ways that distract from what’s happening lyrically, which is maybe part of the point. 

In the end, Only God Was Above Us goes out with a sense of cautious optimism. The final track “Hope” runs nearly eight minutes — epic by Vampire Weekend standards — and combines its lovely descending piano melody with Koenig’s inventory of injustices. “The enemy’s invincible, I hope you let it go,” he repeats at every turn. It’s a reminder that living is frequently messy, and you’ve got to learn to keep going. With Only God Was Above Us, Vampire Weekend have found the odd beauty inside that mess.

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