New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: Vampire Weekend’s ‘Only God Was Above Us’ sinks its teeth into nihilistic perspectives

“Only God Was Above Us,” which was released on April 5, is Vampire Weekend’s most poignant piece of work to date.
Vampire Weekend is an American rock band founded in 2006. (Courtesy photo by Michael Schmelling)

Vampire Weekend might best be known for upbeat tunes about summers in the Hamptons and classic college adventures, but 18 years and four albums later, “Only God Was Above Us” shifted the band into a more cynical approach, complete with classic clashing instrumentals.

Band members Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio and Chris Tomson formed Vampire Weekend during their time at Columbia University, and the group became known for its fun, poppy sound. Hits from its 2008 debut album like “Campus” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” captured the chaos and adventure the band experienced as 20-somethings in the city. But with the three men all turning 40 this year, it only makes sense that their music would mature along with them. 

The 47-minute album — released this past Friday — consists of 10 tracks, opening with “Ice Cream Piano.” The song starts as a ballad and morphs into Vampire Weekend’s classic upbeat indie-rock one minute in. But the last 30 seconds of the song are purely instrumental, unlike anything Vampire Weekend has made before. The instrumentation frantically builds and then crashes out in the last few seconds, creating jarring chaos with clashing notes. This uncharacteristic musical choice seems to represent how efforts to end societal and world conflicts can build and then fizzle out and fall apart, a theme that is present throughout the album. 

The first line in the song, “Fuck the world, you said it quiet / No one could hear you, no one but me,” sets the stage for the album’s overall arc. Lead singer Koenig begins with nihilism, which deeply contrasts the band’s previous more optimistic work. The track brilliantly represents the push and pull of constant, irresolvable conflict, with Koenig confronting the idea that some may not desire resolution: “You don’t want to win this war / ‘Cause you don’t want the peace.”  

The fifth track, “Prep-School Gangsters,” is named after a 1996 New York Magazine article by Nancy Jo Sales and speaks to the partnership between private school students and drug dealers through New York City gangs. The song calls attention to how different classes view intercity conflict. The line “Call it business, call it war,” spotlights how the wealthy perceive their interactions with the lower class as purely transactional, using them as employees to further build their fortune. The other half of the line adds that for the lower class, their relationship with the wealthy is more comparable to war, a constant fight against attacks and suppression.

“Gen-X Cops,” which Vampire Weekend released as a single prior to the album drop, is yet another example of  the band questioning cultural patterns and societal norms. The song asks if we are doomed to make the same mistakes as the generations before us, saying “It wasn’t built for me / It’s your academy / But in my time, you taught me how to see / Each generation makes its own apology.” The question is uncomfortable, but urges listeners to reflect on the world around them.

Make no mistake, just because these songs are packed with gritty social commentary does not mean Vampire Weekend has completely lost its lighthearted identity. The album wrestles with the common theme of pessimism in our culture, interrogating it throughout the album and ultimately rejecting this nihilistic point of view in the final track, “Hope.” Clocking in at just under eight minutes, the airy ballad concedes that there are issues in the world that are unsolvable, but urges the listener not to live in anger or fear, repeating the line “I hope you let it go.”

Vampire Weekend will always be a staple of the indie-rock genre, and “Only God Was Above Us” has solidified the band’s legacy, revealing it to be capable of reaching far outside its comfort zone. The album is a reminder that it is never too late to find new growth and exploration. 

Contact Annie Emans at [email protected].

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