Take "Step", the third song on Vampire Weekend's third album, Modern Vampires of the City-- the record that is already forcing one-time haters of this band to rethink their entire lives. At its core, the song reads like an ode to obsessive music fandom in which the object of Koenig's affection is "entombed within boombox and walkman." Modest Mouse are name-checked. But the sense of infatuation extends beyond a list of influences and is embedded into the music itself. The chorus and parts of the melody are borrowed from wordy Oakland rap act Souls of Mischief's "Step to My Girl"-- which itself samples Grover Washington, Jr.'s version of a Bread song called "Aubrey". But "Step" avoids back-patting nostalgia and debunks bogus generational hierarchies while using the past to inspire the present. It's also melancholy, with Vampire Weekend musical mastermind Rostam Batmanglij surrounding Koenig's musings with lilting harpsichord ambience. Because, as we know, music is a young man's pursuit. "Wisdom's a gift but you'd trade it for youth," Koenig sings.
Still, Vampire Weekend make a damn good case for wisdom all across Modern Vampires. Yes, this is a more grown-up album. It largely trades in the Africa-inspired giddiness of their first two records for a sound that's distinctly innate and closer to the ear. There's more air in these songs, more spontaneity, more dynamics. The overarching themes-- death and a dubious sense of faith-- are certainly Serious. But you never feel like you're being preached at while listening to this album. Koenig and company are probably more clever and gifted than you, sure-- but they're not rubbing your face in it or anything. Their message is one of collective understanding and betterment, and Modern Vampires is the kind of album that'll have you Googling for Buddhist temples and Old Testament allusions at 3 a.m. while listening to reggae great Ras Michael (who's sampled on opener "Obvious Bicycle"). Now, you don't have to get obsessed to enjoy this music, but it's presented with such care that you can't help but want to learn about its deeper meanings. So while Koenig gave up a potential teaching career to take his chances as a rock singer, he's still doling out knowledge in his own way.
Though the record often traverses in darkness-- the zipped-tight "Finger Back" alludes to historic atrocities and brutality while "Hudson", easily the band's bleakest track to date, imagines an apocalyptic Manhattan-- there's also hope here. Partly because Vampire Weekend seem to have internalized all of the positive traits of their internet-soaked generation while