If you want to listen to this, instead of reading it, the audio version can be found here.
Before we start, here are some very real concerns I had before the album came out:
What if I don’t like it / What if it’s been too long / How can I be a true fan / I miss being 15, 16, 17, 18 / What if I cry in public / I really really miss being 16 / What if I don’t cry at the concert / What if I don’t understand it / What if no words come out / What if you write something I hate / What if it doesn’t mean anything anymore / What if I’m not who I was / What if I grew out of you / What if you moved on without me / What if I don’t like it
I don’t what this *identity* means anymore. It’s been 6 years, and I have cultivated myself around this band, around music, around music writing. I don’t how to write this. I’ve been planning this piece for six years and I don’t know how to write it. I’m worried about making all of this mean too much. I’m worried about making this mean too little, because I am not me anymore. I don’t know how to listen to this objectively. I don’t know how to listen to this at all. I don’t know how to react.
I think the only way I know how to do this is to write six letters. Six for the number of singles released before the album. Six for the number of years in the middle. Six for the number of months until I see the music live. Six for the number of times I will listen to this album before I really know it, really hear it.
We’re surviving, we’re still living, are we stronger?
Dear Vampire Weekend,
I’m writing this two weeks before I finish my degree. Of course you would release an album at the very end of my youth; at the moment I have to start living life for real. Impeccable timing, as always. Of course you would release your album the day after I realise that I’m okay with being by myself, I’m okay with being in love with music and me, and no-one else, not for now. Of course you would arrive in time to remind who I am.
Harmony Hall was the first song I listened to. It was the first release; a huge deep dive into an unknown ocean. Orchestral? You’re a bit orchestral now. Bigger, wider, and stretched out. I feel like the song has to be big, because it spans that whole mass of time. It runs from New York to LA, and across band members and non-members and producers and instruments and key changes. I was sat around a bunch of theatre friends when it came out – I was close to tears because I was so overwhelmed but also because I was about to finish my last big production (it’s so silly because these worlds are so separate – they don’t interact and yet?) I remember being too busy to listen to the tracks until four or five hours after their release. Everyone else heard them first. Starting to let that kind of thing go. And the familiarity of something like Harmony Hall sits comfortably in my chest. It still sounds like you. Your riffs are still complex and settle in the verses. Your bridge builds and builds to bring in the nostalgia of the hollow drums and plucking rhythms. Except now you use a big grand piano, not a keyboard. You’ve grown. Grown away from me, a bit. I don’t feel orchestral quite yet. I’m still unsteady.
And the end – begin with the end – the end is the hardest part. I will never listen to this album for the first time ever again. If you wrote Jerusalem, New York, Berlin for Modern Vampires of the City maybe it would be different. It wouldn’t be quite so much like a Leonard Cohen song. It would be tight (not musically, emotionally) – it would be in a minor key and surrounded by echoing, deep synth (maybe more like Hudson?). When you sing this, I feel like you’re content. You weren’t content before. Before you squished everything into ten songs, and every lyric was pained with anxiety, with dread, with some kind of morbid fascination with your own existence. Now you’ve let yourself stretch out in the sun. The ticking clock has faded into the background, and now you’re figuring out to live the rest of your life, maybe even live the rest of your life with someone else.
I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.
We’ve entered into this contract together, I think. That unspoken unconfirmed contract between artist and fan, artist and critic, musician and audience. It’s a little bit of a one-way exchange; one where I gain everything, and you just give. I hope I’ve shown you what it means, even though you will never read this, I hope you somehow know you made me happy. I so often forget that you write about characters – that you’re a storyteller. It makes me think I know you – but I don’t know you at all. And you make these characters so that we can sit inside of them, and bask in the wide open landscapes you draw for them.
This Life and Unbearably White were my favourite of the single releases. They made me so happy. This Life follows that protagonist from songs like Campus, M79, and White Sky. I see his trajectory across North America, weaving through New England, New York, and now California. And he thought that this is where his life would end up, and he thought it wouldn’t rain here, if he’s a new man. That refrain “You’ve been cheating on me, but I’ve been cheating through this life” from iLoveMakonnen really captures that witty, charismatic, makes-you-think-twice lyric that you are so good at writing. And maybe this is that boat shoe, tucked in shirt, curly haired college sophomore aesthetic resurfacing in the most self aware kind of way. “Am I good for nothing?” – always a little self deprecating, a little self obsessed, a little annoying – this song is a bit like the posh straight guy in your queer theory seminar. And yet, in the second half of the song, you change gear. The rug is pulled from under me again, and suddenly I think this song is about America, and being American, and finally pulling away from the country that holds you. Because yes this is a love story, but it’s also a story about landscapes, cities, and feeling unmoored.
Baby, I know hate is always waiting at the gate
I just thought we’d locked the gate when we left in the morning
I was told that war is how we landed on these shores
I just thought the drums of war beat louder warnings
I feel like those lyrics are about a fractious and torn relationship with a country that ceases to want your faith. Maybe not, but that’s what I see. Anyway, I love the final outro because it really feels like a return to some of the theatricality of MVOTC, even though this is such a departure.
And then Unbearably White, which is so provocative as a title, but I feel like you aren’t trying to be shady to any of your critics. You’re too interested in what people have to say for that. I’m writing this as if I know you and of course I don’t, of course I know your characters and some persona but maybe that’s what this whole thing is about. I’m not sure I know how to separate being your fan from being a critic of your work. Because I’m the definition of die-hard. But I haven’t fallen in love this time round. Not completely, not quickly, not fast, not dramatically, urgently in love.
Baby I love you but that’s not enough
I am writing to you five years on from where you are now. I do this a lot, probably because I miss you a lot, and I hope somehow you can hear me. And also because I’m reaching for my quickly disappearing youth.
I am writing to tell you that you are about to experience so much LIFE, and you will love this band for so long, and you will love art and you will feel a lot of things quite intensely.
I am writing to tell you that your favourite band aren’t a band anymore, and your favourite member has left, and their music doesn’t sound like the inside of your brain anymore.
You will associate Big Blue with someone you don’t even know yet. You will associate 2021 with a feeling you don’t understand yet.
And you would love Bambina if you heard it. That would be your favourite song. You’d listen to it so intently, and sing it under your breath in Maths, and doodle the lyrics in the margins of your history books. And you’d be so interested in that overt religious imagery with all its symbolism and weight, just like you were with MVOTC.
I am writing to tell you that you are going to change a lot. You are going to realise that you like theatre more than music. You are going to realise that you should have a fringe and short hair. You are going to listen to way more female artists. You will be single for ages, and you will be very, very happy about it. Things won’t be how you thought they’d be. Keep going though, it’s worth it.
For now, ciao ciao Bambina
The biggest fight (debate??) we ever had, or at least, the one that sticks in my mind is when I told you I thought certain albums weren’t for us. I don’t know if you still disagree with me, actually. You didn’t get how music wasn’t universal, wasn’t all-encompassing and wide reaching. That is actually a really hopeful idea, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily true. I think I’m starting to realise that this album is made for someone like you. It is full of references that you get and I don’t. I have to work a little bit harder to be let in.
I’m starting to realise that all the music I love so much is because of you and that’s amazing, but it also means that it’s quite a lot of men, especially the 2000s indie scene that we both unashamedly love so much. I grew up with my favourite musicians being men. And now you introduce me to amazing women like LP, Japanese House, Patti Smith, Let’s Eat Grandma, Ibibo Sound Machine, This is the Kit…Billie Eilish?! And yet. And yet, this album feels further away than before. It feels not at all like my life.
This album and this band will always be a little bit about you and me and music. I think your favourite songs on this album will be Sympathy, My Mistake, and How Long. The experimental, chaotic bravery of Sympathy is totally your thing. Your jam. It sticks out in the middle of the album – it’s just over halfway through and it’s maybe one of the best things Ezra has ever written. You’ll appreciate the sheer audacity of it, the rampant musicality, the strangeness of it. I think it kind of sounds like a Fleetwood Mac song? Or a kind of odd Beatles track maybe? You liked Sunflower because it felt like an experiment in songwriting. I wasn’t so sure. And then My Mistake sounds like it could be a Strokes B Side or a low key Tame Impala song? And also has those Bowie synths we like. These are definitely the songs on the album that took me longest to warm to – they’re sprawling and melancholic and kind of odd. The interlude of rippling water in My Mistake is the kind of acute attention to production that you’d notice. How Long could definitely fit easily into the other albums. It sounds like it’s been recorded underwater. It feels transitional – like it’s clinging a little bit to the existentialism of MVOTC and the naivety of Contra. But the melodies pull it back. The clicks and crunches pull it firmly into Father of the Bride.
I think I took myself too serious. It’s not that serious.
Dear friends and fellow fans,
“To the fans:” That’s the beginning of the announcement. I’m sitting in the library and I’m deep in writing some essay and the album is announced. Just like that. And I reach across and I’m so excited and you look at me and smile.
Everyone messages me when it’s released. I am flooded with all of you ready to share it with me. You all have your favourites. I can see you all listening to it on my spotify. I get messages which all basically read: “I have LOTS of thoughts. I love it – do you?” I remember when Ezra teased Flower Moon back at the Ojai show last fall, and we all just went mad. And everyone is wearing their merch today. And everyone is always in the front row. And we are older and we are all saying how much has happened in six years, how much we’ve changed. “It’s gonna take a year. Let’s drink Coca Cola and red wine.” And this one too, feels familiar. It could’ve been on the last album, except that it works here because you’ve let your shoulders unclench, you’ve let the drums elongate, and imbued the riffs with lifeblood and joy, you’ve given some vocals to Steve Lacy. Tell me when you get to Stranger. This will turn out to be one of my favourites, I just know it. Again it’s a big country ballad, and they’ve got that brass section, and Danielle again. It all just screams golden fields, California sun, beer, and cowboy hats (??). And the little derivative in the outro is really nice actually. Rich Man is also a bit country. Lol. I really didn’t think we’d turn into country fans, but here we are. Let’s keep being fans. I will see you all at a concert in 10, 20, 30 years, I hope, sitting at the back drinking beer and wearing massive hats and with your families.
I remember life as a stranger, but things change. Things have never been stranger.
Let’s talk about the love songs. Danielle Haim’s voice balances Ezra’s scratchy, wide vocals. Her voice is organically gorgeous – a tiny bit rough around the edges, but you can barely hear it. At each third, she intersects as his counterpart. The protagonist of these songs, of this album, keeps returning to her. He can’t hold her love in his hands, he can’t catch it all. It’s like sand rushing through his fingers. And it’s just all too good to be true.
You’ll play Hold You Now as you walk down the aisle, or for your first dance. It’s the song that plays over the montage. You’ll sing Married in a Gold Rush at a Karaoke bar. It’s the song that will remind you of 2019, 2020, 2021. You’ll laugh at We Belong Together with the only person it can be about. It will become about someone you haven’t even met yet. They will remind you of your youth, and all the ways that love will never be.
Hold You Now sits so strangely as an opener – it’s so choral? It sets itself up as a falling in love song, but it’s actually about falling out of love. And why would you open with that? It’s about an ending. So maybe, maybe we listen backwards. Start with We Belong Together. Rostam’s watermark stains each beat of this one. Particularly the piano in the background, and the strong strumming guitar chords. “There’s no point in being clever, it don’t mean we’ll stay together” And Married in a Gold Rush is openly romantic in a way they haven’t been before. Expanding their lexicon to country cringe in a way they would never have. “This is not some grand design” Is this what happens after the existentialism? Is marriage the solution to that ticking clock? Is that what you’re telling me? Really? But then, back to Hold You Now, and it’s ended. With each song, the voices and the characters they belong to fall out of love. Or realise that the love they have for each other just isn’t enough.
So when you remember the feeling these songs give you, remember summer and being 21 and falling in and out of love quickly and fiercely with everything and everyone. I thought you might learn the language. I thought you might learn to sing. I can’t decide if this is one massive end or a really new beginning. I think we’ll find out soon. I want to see what you’re like when the next album comes out. Will you stay up till midnight? Will you be in love? Where will you be living? Who do you know? Do you still use writing as a kind of ridiculous catharsis? What do these songs mean to you? Do you even still like music? I think you probably do.
I know I loved you then, I think I love you now.
I feel like those little spoken interruptions in between the tracks are like after thoughts, something said without really thinking. Process bleeding into practise bleeding into product. It’s a bit messy, it’s a bit different, it’s a bit more human.
Six years is a very respectable amount of waiting time for an album.
Here’s to the next decade.
We took a vow in summertime, now we find ourselves in late September.
Photo: Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride audio cover | Sony Music