Vampire Weekend | Only God Was Above Us (Columbia)

Photo of Vampire Weekend by Michael Schmelling

Only God Was Above Us is the first Vampire Weekend record that’s not an explicit break with the band’s own past. Sophomore album Contra ditched much of their debut album’s WASP-y worldbeat for electronic textures and beats. Their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, took a thousand-foot view of urban life, manners, and spirituality, draping it in the most complex, yet elegant, music Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij’s hyper-detailed songwriting partnership had produced to that point. The first Vampire Weekend LP without Rostam, 2019’s Father of the Bride, was the biggest shift, a Hypercolor-ed foray into jam band sounds and a relaxed Southern California aesthetic—an extra surprising left turn for this most New York of bands.

Five years later, OGWAU revisits Gotham, and the band’s core sound, while wisely not retreating into it. The album’s title is a reference to a New York Daily News headline from 1988—the paper itself is featured on the album’s cover, which is itself set within a disused, graffiti-soaked subway car from the same NYC era. Only God Was Above Us’ new trick is distortion, something Vampire Weekend had consciously shied away from throughout their career to this point. It’s a fitting sonic representation of the same late 20th century visual vibe. This focus also ties into one of the album’s themes, that of fondly remembering a “simple” past that was far more complicated than your memories make it seem.

On OGWAU, Koenig attempts to find perspective on the present through the lens of an only partially romanticized past. On beautifully cacophonous album opener “Ice Cream Piano,” he sings “you don’t want to win this war, ‘cause you don’t want the peace.” It’s a salvo at the polarized world we inhabit, where it often feels like we skip straight to the nuclear option, where we’ve become so inured to battle, we don’t even contemplate attempting to understand.

The cover art to Only God Was Above Us

“Classical” sets howling guitars to clattering, breakbeat-inspired drums, the whole thing happily strains under its own weight while offering up an impeccable melody. Lyrically, it scrutinizes complacency, and how the arrival of new travesties can lead to acceptance of old ones: “Untrue, unkind, and unnatural. How the cruel, with time, becomes classical.” The song is also a reminder, if you somehow needed one, what a tight musical unit Koenig, bassist Chris Baio, and drummer Chris Tomson are and have always been.

“Capricorn,” a lurching, charmingly noisy spiritual descendent of the buttoned-up East Coast trip-hop of Vampire Weekend classic “Step,” examines finding yourself being “too old for dying young, too young to live alone, sifting through centuries for moments of your own.” This idea is further explored in the frantic, gloriously blown-out single “Gen-X Cops.” In it, Koenig reluctantly accepts that you and your youthful bravado and righteous certainty eventually becomes the establishment that the next set of kids tries to understand, and more often, yearns to change. “Each generation makes its own apology.”

Lest this review imply Vampire Weekend have ceased looking forward, like your friends who stopped listening to new music somewhere around age 35, the band still has new tricks up its sleeve. “The Surfer” (featuring co-production and a co-write from Rostam) swirls with reverb-soaked horns, strings, and treated piano; stately, constantly mutating 8-minute closer “Hope” is unlike anything in the Vampire Weekend canon to date, urging the listener to not capitulate, but accept that struggle is never over. When Koenig sings “our enemy’s invincible, I hope you let it go,” he shares a belief that hope is the long view, and hope itself is our most durable tool. Is this a radical stance, or is it a copout? It might be a little bit of both. But it’s a chewy idea, one of many on this compelling album, that gives longtime listeners plenty to ponder while they bask in the grimy and immaculate beauty of these dense and immediate songs. | Mike Rengel

Vampire Weekend on tour:

Mon Apr 08 – Austin, TX – Moody Amphitheater (Solar Eclipse) 
Sat April 27 – New Orleans, LA – New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival*
Fri May 10 – Salt Lake City, UT – Kilby Block Party*
Thu May 30 – Barcelona, Espana – Primavera Sound*
Thu Jun 06 – Houston, TX – 713 Music Hall
Fri Jun 07 – Irving, TX – The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory
Sun Jun 09 – Phoenix, AZ – Arizona Financial Theatre
Mon Jun 10 – San Diego, CA – Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre
Wed Jun 12 – Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood Bowl
Sat Jun 15 – Berkeley, CA – The Greek Theatre at U.C. Berkeley
Sun Jun 16 – Berkeley, CA – The Greek Theatre at U.C. Berkeley (Matinee Show)
Tue Jun 18 – Burnaby, BC – Deer Lake Park
Wed Jun 19 – Bend, OR – Hayden Homes Amphitheater
Thu Jun 20 – Seattle, WA – Climate Pledge Arena
Sat Jun 22 – Bonner, MT – KettleHouse Amphitheater
Sun Jun 23 – Bonner, MT – KettleHouse Amphitheater (Matinee Show)
Fri Jul 19 – Morrison, CO – Red Rocks Amphitheatre 
Sat Jul 20 – Dillon, CO – Dillon Amphitheater 
Mon Jul 22 – Kansas City, MO – Starlight Theatre
Tue Jul 23 – Lincoln, NE – Pinewood Bowl Theater
Thu Jul 25 – Maryland Heights, MO – Saint Louis Music Park
Fri Jul 26 – Chicago, IL – Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
Sat Jul 27 – Chicago, IL – Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
Tue Jul 30 – Minneapolis, MN – The Armory
Wed Jul 31 – Minneapolis, MN – The Armory
Thu Aug 01 – Milwaukee, WI – BMO Pavilion
Sat Aug 03 – St. Charles, IA – Hinterland*
Thu Sep 19 – Cuyahoga Falls, OH – Blossom Music Center
Fri Sep 20 – Cincinnati, OH – The ICON Festival Stage at Smale Park
Sat Sep 21 – Indianapolis, IN – Everwise Amphitheater at White River State Park
Mon Sep 23 – Rochester Hills, MI – Meadow Brook Amphitheatre
Tue Sep 24 – Toronto, ON – Budweiser Stage
Wed Sep 25 – Laval, QC – Place Bell
Fri Sep 27 – Boston, MA – TD Garden 
Sat Sep 28 – Philadelphia, PA – TD Pavilion at The Mann 
Mon Sep 30 – Washington, DC – The Anthem
Tue Oct 01 – Washington, DC – The Anthem
Wed Oct 02 – Charlottesville, VA – Ting Pavilion
Sat Oct 05 – New York, NY – Madison Square Garden 
Sun Oct 06 – New York, NY – Madison Square Garden (Matinee Show) 
Tue Oct 08 – Wilmington, NC – Live Oak Bank Pavilion
Wed Oct 09 – Raleigh, NC – Red Hat Amphitheater
Fri Oct 11 – Nashville, TN – Ascend Amphitheater
Sat Oct 12 – Atlanta, GA – Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park
Sun Oct 13 – Asheville, NC – Rabbit Rabbit
Tue Oct 15 – St. Augustine, FL – St. Augustine Amphitheatre
Thu Oct 17 – Austin, TX – Moody Center
Fri Nov 29  – Dublin, Ireland – 3Arena
Sun Dec 1  – Manchester, UK – O2 Apollo
Mon Dec 2  – Manchester, UK – O2 Apollo
Wed Dec 4  – London, UK – Eventim Apollo
Fri Dec 6  – Wolverhampton, UK – The Halls
Sun Dec 8  – Glasgow, UK – OVO Hydro
Tue Dec 10  – London, UK – O2 Academy Brixton
Fri Dec 13  – Paris, France – Adidas Arena
Dun Dec 15  – Amsterdam, Netherlands – AFAS Live

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