"Harmony Hall" and "2021" Finally Reveal What Is to Come for a Post-Rostam Vampire Weekend
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Vampire Weekend’s Afro-inspired prep rock has set them apart since their inception with their 2008 debut album, the self-titled, Vampire Weekend, but after a 6-year-long hiatus from music, the group reemerges with a semi-new sound. Of course, changes are to be expected, as the group lost their producer and songwriter, Rostam, who left to pursue solo work. This ultimately leaves the group with only one defining member, lead singer and co-songwriter, Ezra Koenig.
While the group was oft-described as a glitzier remake of Graceland-era Paul Simon, the snide comments were perhaps only skin-deep at the time. On its surface, Vampire Weekend was undeniably defined by its love of African drum beats, squeaky clean guitars and hyper-intellectual lyrics, but the work still felt refreshingly modern. Perhaps it could be characterized not as a copycat of Graceland but rather as a descendant.
With each subsequent release to their self-titled debut, the group used similar formulas to great success every time, but the sound has been fairly played out at this point. In contrast to Simon’s work, Koenig presents both ivy league intellectualism and a sincere mark of hopefulness. This delicate balance of pragmatism and optimism settles his lyrics into a unique, almost entirely uninhabited space. These lyrics and melodies were translated by bandmate, Rostam, perfectly into the careful arrangement of each track. The songs are, at once, thoughtful and full of whimsy, the two songwriters perfectly complementing the work of the other.
In the silent years that followed their most recent album, Modern Vampires of the City (2013), and Rostam’s subsequent exit from the group, fans were left to imagine the band without one of its most important members for years. It seemed Vampire Weekend must finally abandon their characteristic sound which was curated by Rostam and become essentially a cover name for “the Ezra Koenig band.” The silence continued until the summer of 2018 when the group returned to the stage with an almost unrecognizable group of new musicians, further insinuating that a post-Rostam Vampire Weekend would certainly be different.
Finally, the group released two new songs, “Harmony Hall” and “2021,” from their upcoming double album, Father of the Bride. The copyright listed below the two tracks on Spotify confirms the suspicions of waiting fans, the songs are owned by “Ezra Koenig under exclusive license to Columbia Records.” This is no longer the symbiotic band it once was. “Vampire Weekend Inc.,” which is listed as the copyright holder under their other projects, has been dissolved, and it shows in the two singles.
While music must be moving forward, evolving, at all times, and it was certainly time for Vampire Weekend to mature, their latest work has changed for the worst. The intro to “Harmony Hall,” the first new music from the band in six years, is far too defining. It begins with a pretty, yet distracting acoustic guitar riff which will play continuously throughout the entire song. Koenig also revealed in an interview that this riff will be featured thematically throughout Father of the Bride too. Beneath the guitar lies a light synthetic string pad which seems almost unprofessional in its kitschy-ness.
Then Koenig enters with a familiar melody, so familiar it seems almost as if the song already existed at some other point in time. This is confirmed by the interpolated tag line “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die” from their previous song, “Finger Back.” While the rest of the song is supposedly unique from “Finger Back” and other previous releases, the overall expectedness of Koenig’s melodies make it so that it might as well have been an old remake. The song seems like a phone-in attempt to change their sound. Scaling back its production from complexity to simple but busy acoustic instruments was the only noticeable change, and, for some reason, The Man himself did not bothered to grow at all in the last six years.
While the lyrics are strong, as usual, mostly everything else in this track is a shell of its former self. Strangely, this song sounds way more Paul Simon-esque than anything in their previous discography which is concerning. By stripping Vampire Weekend’s work of its exciting and undeniably modern production elements, the song is left seeming like an early Simon track as he was just becoming interested in global experimentation.
The greatest surprise of all, besides the juvenile vibraslap that was thrown in, is that this is not even post-Rostam Vampire Weekend after all. It turns out that Rostam actually came back to produce this song. While he tried to aim the band away from its comfort zone, in the process, he somehow positioned the group to live up to its accusations of being a Paul Simon copycat even further.
The second song, “2021,” is another classic Koenig melody although it is more enjoyable than “Harmony Hall.” The production on it is minimal, skeletal even. One can pick out every instrument in this track, and while it is bare, it is not totally barren – though it is dangerously close, the production seems to complement the timbre Koenig’s voice. The song features a repetitive sample of the word, “boy,” which adds an interesting motivic element to the track, and helps situate this as one of Vampire Weekend’s most distinctive songs ever. It also features a sample from Japanese music icon, Haruomi Hosono. While “2021” still is not a total success, it is at least a clear direction of Koenig’s choosing, taking him into his own space on his own terms.
If “Harmony Hall” and “2021” are any indication, the upcoming double album, Father of the Bride, will lack the cohesion of past works, tied together thinly just by Koenig himself. Unfortunately, it seems that the next album will end up being a convoluted search for Vampire Weekend’s new identity in their (mostly) post-Rostam world.