Review: ‘Father of the Bride’ is dark despite bright melodies

by Zachary Benjamin | 5/21/19 2:00am

It’s a recurring theme in discussions amongst Vampire Weekend fans that their albums correspond to seasons. Their self-titled debut album, full of perky strings and New England imagery, is reminiscent of a collegiate fall. Their sophomore effort, “Contra,” with its bright synths and upbeat tempos, brings to mind a sunny summer day. And “Modern Vampires of the City,” their third album, is the definition of wintry, with its black and white cover and its existential, morbid themes.

“Father of the Bride,” Vampire Weekend’s latest album and their first new music in six years, continues this theme, calling to mind a new spring bloom with its plant imagery and laid-back atmosphere. More than that, spring is a season of rebirth, and “Father of the Bride” is Vampire Weekend’s most dramatic reimagining of themselves yet. Gone are most of the literary allusions and opacity that defined their early lyrics, replaced with an earnest straightforwardness and simplicity that nevertheless mask surprising depth. 

Vampire Weekend’s sound, meanwhile, pulls from a new set of influences. If early Vampire Weekend’s vibe drew on the semi-ironic appropriation of Lacoste polos, Sperry boat shoes and summers at the Hamptons, then “Father of the Bride” has a vibe that calls to mind jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish, the old-fashioned twang and sincerity of country duets and the environmental consciousness and kitsch of the ’90s. It’s a sprawling, majestic album of greater scope than their previous works, and in spite of its ostensible lightness represents Vampire Weekend’s most mature music yet.

Actually, perhaps that sentence merits a clarification — while this is ostensibly a Vampire Weekend album, it would be more accurate to describe “Father of the Bride” as the product of lead singer, guitarist and frontman Ezra Koenig. Following the departure in 2016 of founding member Rostam Batmanglij, who was responsible for defining much of early Vampire Weekend’s sound, the band has become Koenig’s brainchild, both lyrically and melodically — bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson have been relegated to the rear. More than ever, Vampire Weekend’s music seems to reflect Koenig’s thematic concerns: fatherhood (Koenig’s partner, the actress Rashida Jones, recently gave birth to the couple’s son), love and loss, and acceptance of life’s trials and tribulations.

Some reviews of the album have characterized “Father of the Bride” as embracing a newfound sense of happiness, especially compared to the gloom of “Modern Vampires of the City.” Lyrically, some parts of some songs do support this view. “When I was young, I was told I’d find one rich man in ten has a satisfied mind and I’m the one,” Koenig sings on the palm-wine inspired “Rich Man,” which sounds like it could be featured in a Wes Anderson film. On the energetic “Bambina,” the track most reminiscent of their previous works, he declares, “Life felt like heaven today, like a foreign car, though we are American-made.” In addition to the lyrics, the livelier sounds and carefree tones go a long way toward making “Father of the Bride” seem like a happy collection of music.

But while the melodies are brighter, the lyrics as a whole are darker than ever. The album’s first single, “Harmony Hall” features in its chorus the line, “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die” — a callback to the same line from their earlier track “Finger Back.” The Van Morrison-esque “This Life” declares, “Baby, I know pain is as natural as the rain, I just thought it didn’t rain in California.” And in “How Long?” another deceptively upbeat song, Koenig sings, “How long ’til we sink to the bottom of the sea? How long, how long?”

Dark stuff. But what sets “Father of the Bride” apart from “Modern Vampires of the City” is a sense that, while tragedy in life is inevitable, it need not be overwhelming. Darkness exists, but so does the light, and every night brings a new day — just as every day brings a new night.

“After wrestling with what I want to do with my life, and meaning, and death and all these things, life just goes on, and you still deal with anxiety and depression, but it can almost feel mundane,” Koenig said in an interview with the publication Highsnobiety about the album. “You still wrestle with weighty themes, but you also have to have a laugh about it, too.” 

One of my favorite lyrics from the album might sum up this theme best. In the opening track, “Hold You Now,” a duet with Danielle Haim of HAIM, Koenig and Haim declare, “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now.” It’s a reminder that while the good times won’t last, they do exist, and it’s our job to cherish them while we can.

“Father of the Bride” is not a perfect album. Its kitsch can sometimes translate into cheesiness, and it lacks the coherence of vision that defined Vampire Weekend’s earlier works. But it’s new and it’s lively and it’s fun, and even its grimmest moments are refreshing. “Things have never been stranger ... things are gonna stay strange,” Koenig sings on the track “Stranger.” I, for one, am here for this newfound strangeness.