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Original release date: 14 May, 2013
Label: XL Recordings

With their ornamental whimsy taking a backseat to more sombre musings on death and religious disillusionment, Modern Vampires of the City ushered in a new era for Vampire Weekend.

In 2013, Vampire Weekend were no longer the fresh-faced college kids soundtracking campus life with preppy indie-rock. Where they had emerged with spirited songs that nodded to the rhythms of Congolese rumba and the intricacies of soukous guitars (or simply the influence of Orange Juice’s Rip It Up), their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, embraced a more sombre sound. Their subject matter, too, had evolved. Lyrics about punctuation or meandering, surrealist bus journeys were replaced by reckonings with weightier topics. “There’s a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know,” Ezra Koenig bleakly observed on Don’t Lie, his imagery patently darker than before.

Released three years after their second album, Contra, this shift in tone and style felt natural. Their first two records gave Vampire Weekend indie darling status, catapulting them from the halls of Columbia University to the upper echelons of festival bills and global charts. By Modern Vampires…, the sun was setting on their carefree days as their thirties drew nearer. In turn, the album became a vessel of reflection; a way to search and grapple with life’s big questions.

Though Vampire Weekend’s previous albums were far from frivolous, putting topics like class and wealth under Koenig’s unique lyrical lens, Modern Vampires… is broader in scope. Much of the record deals with religious disillusionment, whether it’s the main narrative, as on Unbelievers and Everlasting Arms, or more subtly, as in Hannah Hunt. On the latter, Koenig softly eschews the idea of God as all-knowing, putting that characteristic on Hunt instead. There’s also a focus on death and endings. The anxieties that come with getting older and realising your youth is fading colour the record; the passage of time bearing down heavily on its collection of songs.

This newfound existentialism didn’t mean the loss of Vampire Weekend’s playful edge, though. Going up in flames shouldn’t sound as fun as it does on Diane Young (whose title is a tongue-in-cheek twist on the phrase “dying young”), which tears through ideas around mortality at breakneck speed, its pummelling drums and jittery guitar lines moving ever faster until they threaten to careen out of control. Ya Hey makes big questions about spirituality sound joyous rather than complex, thanks to its chirpy chipmunk vocal fragments and piano runs. Throughout the record, the band toy with pitch shifting and sonic experimentation, inventive streaks coursing through the darkness courtesy of co-producers Ariel Rechtshaid and the band’s own Rostam Batmanglij. 

“It [reinforced] the idea that fun in music didn’t mean it couldn’t also be meaningful and layered, and reflect darkness,” says British-Sudanese singer-songwriter The Halfway Kid, who cites Vampire Weekend – and Modern Vampires…, in particular – as a big influence on his own music. “It feels experimental, recording-wise, but that’s not the point. The point was that the experimentation was in support of the feeling in the songs.”


“It [reinforced] the idea that fun in music didn’t mean it couldn’t also be meaningful and layered, and reflect darkness” – The Halfway Kid

On their first two albums, Vampire Weekend wore their global influences on their sleeves – often contentiously and provoking conversations around cultural appreciation versus appropriation. On Modern Vampires… they deployed their world-straddling inspirations more delicately, still present but not pulling as much focus. Obvious Bicycle samples reggae master Ras Michael, while the record uses rhythms from the traditional Jamaican drumming practice Nyabinghi. The baroque orchestral ornamentation is dialled back, leaving the record more instrumentally sparse in a way that lays its sadness bare.  

Looking back, the album encapsulates the way digital natives make collages out of pop culture. In 2013, Tumblr was still at its peak and social media was fuelling a cultural omnivorousness that bypassed boundaries. In their music, Vampire Weekend followed suit. Modern Vampires… continues music’s great lineage of sampling and interpolation, cherry-picking melodies and lyrics with magpie-like shrewdness, but pieces everything together in a way that feels like scrolling through a timeline, never dwelling in one spot for long. But, despite being seemingly so rooted in the habits of the era, the record doesn’t feel particularly time-stamped. Instead, they weave their finds into their own work so seamlessly that, without prior knowledge, it’s often hard to know where one ends and the other begins. 

At the time, Modern Vampires… felt transitional; the sign of a band moving on from a previous incarnation into a new chapter. It was also one of the last landmark albums in the disco pants and shoelace headband phase of indie’s history. The period now known as indie sleaze was winding down, taking the genre’s dominance over the mainstream with it. Culture was shifting away from guitars and leaning heavily towards hip-hop and rap, while a surge in poptimism set the stage for the sounds that would rule in the years to come. A bubble of chart success and spearheading trends was about to burst for bands. Just before it did, though, Modern Vampires… scored Vampire Weekend their second No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned them their first Grammy – deserved acclaim for an album that continues to offer room for reflection during life’s pivotal moments.