Vampire Weekend: “Contra”
Conventional wisdom says that Vampire Weekend should be heading toward a downward slope right about now. They’re prodigies, the musical equivalent of child stars who burned bright but burned very, very early, becoming one of the last decade’s most surprising indie rock success stories before they even cut their debut album, quickly finding themselves entangled in the sort of cyclical hype and then backlash that tends to end with a gradual fade into oblivion. But give them some credit: Vampire Weekend may never make another album as hot as their debut, but second album Contra makes it clear that they’re in this for the long haul.
It’s the kind of sly, slightly subversive sophomore record that tends to grow in stature over time—and yes, that does mean it’s less immediate than the first one. For as much as critics like to play up the group’s fascination with Afrobeat, originality has never been their calling card; from square one, they’ve dealt an indie-fied update on Graceland-era Paul Simon, and, to a lesser extent, some of Peter Gabriel’s more globally-minded music. What made the music catch on was their effervescent enthusiasm, a giddy vim and vigor that obscured their sleek, professional chops under the mark of youthful abandon. Contra finds the professionalism ratcheted up a few notches. The youthfulness? Well, in a word: Abandoned.
Contra is the subtler, more sophisticated and slow-moving older brother to Vampire Weekend, pulling off the neat trick of staying true to the group’s core aesthetic while managing to sound like a different beast altogether, if only because things are more deliberate, more sophisticated. No longer does Vampire Weekend ride along on skittering percussion and twitching guitar riffs; this is a more ponderous sound, though not necessarily less light and agreeable, nor any less enamored with the possibilities that the music offers.
Indeed, Contra finds the band feeling out the limitations of their own sound with the kinds of subtle experiments that reveal their charms gradually. There are more synths here, and more samples. There are strings. There’s even some Auto-tune on one song. The compositions are deep, rich, sophisticated—less about bowling you over with sheer force, more about sinking their hooks in slowly, over time.
And really, that’s the best way to summarize the record, which initially sounds like business as usual for these guys before it hits just how much variation they’ve worked into their basic framework. It’s a sly move that works to their advantage, as it sounds very much like a natural progression from Vampire Weekend even though it subtly shifts focus from one of the band’s strengths—their cheerful, almost punkish vigor—to their other—namely, that they have always been a lyrics band, something that has always been emphasized in reviews and is thrown into sharper focus here, with the lush beds of synths and samples giving room to Ezra Koening’s thesaurus-rock vignettes about upper-class elitism.
Which is to say that yes, the lyrics are as precious and at times clever-clever as before—early reviews seem keen on mentioning Koening’s rhyme of “horchata” and “balaclava,” but that’s just one of innumerable examples of panglobal, upper-class jargon—but here, too, there is a shift, albeit one so sly that it takes a few listens to uncover it. On their debut, Koening sneered at these elitisms like he was a young Elvis Costello, but there’s nothing here quite as nasty as his “who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” quip from their debut. Here, the hoity-toity façade is peeled away to reveal a bruised heart at its core. Final song “I Think UR a Contra” is a sinister crawl that stands as the most un-Vampire Weekend cut here, and also one of the group’s most chilling cuts; Koening lists all of his lover’s material wants and earthly entanglements before cracking, in a wounded falsetto, “Well, I just wanted you.”
There is, in other words, a bigger heart to Vampire Weekend’s music than the hipster-friendly debut suggested—and more smarts, too. They still bait the Pitchfork crowd—this is, after all, an album rife with inverted Clash allusions and M.I.A. samples—but Contra proves that they’re in this for more than flash-in-the-pan thrills. This is an album that suggests Vampire Weekend is capable of creating not just a trend, but a legacy.