The unbridled happiness of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album, released January 29, 2008, coincided with and perfectly complemented the second semester of my senior year of high school; I remember capering with my friends in their basements, half-shouting the lyrics in the spirit of frontman Ezra Koenig’s energetic (occasionally barking) voice, sipping from our preciously illicit first beers. The recent college graduates’ fittingly collegiate themes (in the track “Campus,” most obviously: “You’re walking cross the campus / Cruel professor / Studying romances”) reminded us how soon we were leaving home and how awesome it was going to be. The playful fusion of diverse genres—from Afro-pop to low-key indie, New Wave to ska—appealed to our Age-of-Mashups ideals of creativity (the summer of Girl Talk’s epically popular _Feed the Animals_ was obviously on its way). The Columbia University alums composed an album at once wholly, accessibly catchy and intelligently cultured (with references from Cape Cod to Darjeeling); knowing that my near-future University was little more than a 90-minute New Jersey Transit ride away from the Brooklyn-based quartet made my seventeen-year-old heart beat fast.
Roughly two years later—on January 12, 2010—they dropped _Contra_, their second album (although copies were floating around the Internet earlier in the month if you bothered to look), and, well, things have changed. Now that I’m in college, they’re over it; although the two album covers, as Koenig has said, “look like they both inhabit the same world,” the first features a chandelier at Columbia, the latter a 1983 photo of a bewildered blonde girl—clearly not someone from their graduating class. (Koenig has only disclosed that she is “now living in Malibu.”) _Contra_ has more color, more worldbeat, more oscillating synth-pop, and Koenig’s dynamic voice, often intentionally abrasive in _Vampire Weekend_, is now decidedly sweet with winsome falsettos (as in, for example, the catchy post-chorus hums of “White Sky,” or what seems like the entirety of “I Think Ur a Contra”). Taken together, the carefree marimbas of “Horchata,” the dizzying Auto-Tune of “California English,” and the M.I.A. sample in “Diplomat’s Son” attest not only to increased musical versatility but to their heightened adventurousness.
Perhaps the band’s side projects aided in this evolution. Koenig made a cameo last summer in “Warm Heart of Africa” by The Very Best, a collaboration between Malawi native Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit, on their album of the same name; his exuberance blended well with the sunny, totally lovable LP. And maybe he saw something he liked in Mwamwaya’s cosmopolitanism (_Warm Heart of Africa_, according to Pitchfork’s review, features “Chichewa, English, and other languages”) or in his unabashed juxtaposition of African melodies with Architecture in Helsinki samples. And Vampire Weekend keyboardist Rostam Batmangli, along with Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot, released the album LP on July 7, 2009, as the band Discovery; catchier tracks such as “Osaka Loop Line” and “So Insane” show off Batmangli’s increasingly skillful mastery of artificial sounds and genre bending. In retrospect, it’s easy to see what the band was learning.
But in their maturation from smirking college kids asking, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” in the track, uh, “Oxford Comma” to singing about horchata, balaclavas, and Masada (and in the concomitant transition from obscurity to occupying the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart), some things have stayed the same: most notably, the opposition. Haters hated on their cultural missteps and on their not-funny wardrobes of preppy collared shirts and cardigans, sneakers and boat shoes (all the while singing about having “Spilled kefir / On your keffiyah”); the irony is easily missed or dismissed. But, most objectionable, perhaps, is the seeming hypocrisy of one of their favorite themes: denouncing elitism and questioning one’s (upper middle) class. The first album certainly considers the idea in “Oxford Comma,” when Koenig mocks someone insecure about status: “Why would you lie about how much coal you have? / Why would you lie about something dumb like that?” But _Contra_ refers to wealth almost constantly: “California English” says, “Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club;” in “Taxi Cab,” Koenig sings, “I pretended I was horrified / By the uniform clothes outside / Of the courtyard gate;” the track “Diplomat’s Son” is about, well, a diplomat’s son. The bombardment of allusions to wealth suggest a mockery of it; Koenig makes this explicit in “I Think Ur a Contra,” when he bemoans a love who “wanted good schools / And friends with pools” but he “just wanted you.”
But there is something off-putting about a bunch of upper middle class twentysomethings—Ivy League graduates, no less—interrogating social hierarchies. Their songs are so well composed, their synthesizer so well executed that it’s questionable if they could actually handle the disruption to social ordering their lyrics request. Juliane Shepherd, writing for _the Village Voice_, once likened them to the “ridiculous soap opera _Gossip Girl_, a trashy show whose very existence underscores issues of race and class,” claiming that “Vampire Weekend does the same, but sans the performative self-awareness.” And it’s true: Koenig sings about money in his carefree manner to the band’s cheery indietronica instrumentation.
It’s precisely this carefree manner, however, that redeems them. Vampire Weekend asks its listeners to lighten up: to care less about money, for one, but also to blend familiar categories of music, to swallow their obnoxiously ironic preppiness, and to embrace their effervescence. They know what they’re doing; their discussion of wealth uses flags so red (Koenig mentions “docking the yacht in such low waters” in final track “Giant”) that it’s insulting to assume they aren’t making a big joke. The band’s growth from _Vampire Weekend_ to _Contra_, which expands the money theme while tightening their musical technique, builds precisely upon what critics hated; they understand the incongruity of having an upper middle class status and mocking it. Reacting to music rejecting uptightness with more uptightness, then, seems much sillier than mentioning horchata and Masada in the same song or even wearing a keffiyah.