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Photo: Michael Schmelling
Photo: Michael Schmelling

Vampire Weekend Rises to the Occasion on Only God Was Above Us

The Columbia University graduates are ready to take the lecture stand and answer your prayers. 

by Maggie McPhee

It can be complicated when a band you loved a decade ago releases a new album. Have they changed? Have you? Are you no longer compatible? Sometimes, rarely, wonderfully, you both change for the better. 

Vampire Weekend, the casual collegiates of yore, have traded their linen for tweed and stepped into a professorial role with their fifth studio album, Only God Was Above Us. They’ve aged, wisened, have a lot to say, and know how to say it well, without having lost that kinetic, experimental energy that defined their earlier music. 

It’s impossible not to hear Only God Was Above Us in the context of global events, specifically the Israel-Palestine conflict, with allusions to religion, war, and imperialism threaded throughout the record. On opener “Ice Cream Piano”, frontman Ezra Koenig sings “You won’t win this war because you don’t want the peace” and the instrumentation marches towards a crescendo of lurching guitar and pointillistic piano that nearly sounds like warfare. 

But the record is both a political and personal affair. Many of the songs feature sonic allusions to their previous output. And that opener, after all, begins with Koenig addressing just one person: “Fuck the world, you said it quiet/No one could hear you, no one but me.” One can hear a sense of contemplative yet cynical consideration of their place in it all, one that often feels futile. “The universe will pry out, the truth which is you’ve got nothin’ to say.” 

Whereas Vampire Weekend have always mused on lofty topics, like history, urban geography, and identity, it seems now Koenig and company have embraced the hard truth that they can’t come up with answers to everything. On the album’s epic closer Hope, as his poetic verses end with the same supplication, “I hope you let it go,” it’s almost as if he’s speaking to himself, that he might relinquish his desire to Know Everything. Thankfully, though, he hasn’t relinquished his desire to make excellent music.