Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City | Rumpus Music

Albums of Our Lives: Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City

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After living in Cambodia for two years, I spent June in New York City. I was disoriented, cold, jumpy. I couldn’t understand the thick way cashiers spoke, and I couldn’t navigate the Union Square subway station.

Yet much of my disorientation went beyond what tourists experience. I tensed at the sight of mosquitoes, which could be carrying malaria or dengue, and I was nervous to step off well-marked paths, because unfamiliar ground could hold landmines. It was much easier to get my body from Asia to America than it was to get my mind here.

To add to my unease, I spent a lot of time thinking about mortality. My church in Cambodia had cared for a man as he slowly succumbed to cancer in a slum. A few weeks before leaving Cambodia, I had attended his funeral. A few weeks after arriving in North America, my uncle had been diagnosed with cancer. I knew his was the next funeral I would attend.

While in New York, I discovered Vampire Weekend’s album Modern Vampires of the City. One of its tracks, “Step,” mentioned Cambodia and New York in the same breath, just as I experienced them. I listened to the song over and over again for the reference to a Cambodian temple in its second line and the reference to New York in its fourth.

Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl
Back back way back I used to front like Angkor Wat
Mechanicsburg Anchorage and Dar es Salaam
While home in New York was champagne and disco

The album had been released two years earlier, in 2013, making it one of the many things I had missed in my time away. Its cover shows New York as it felt to me while wandering the Village, overstimulated and distracted, in a haze of reverse culture shock.

Modern Vampires of the City is a departure from the band’s blithe days of declaring indifference to Oxford commas. Titles like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms,” and “Worship You” make it clear the songs are about more serious topics than pedantic grammar arguments. Even the raucous “Diane Young” is serious, a play on the phrase “dying young.”

The religious material appealed to me as much as the foggy image of New York. I had lost my geographic orientation and my spiritual orientation too. Two years in poor, run-down Cambodia had challenged my idea of God in a way the previous decades of a comfortable Western existence had not. How could anyone serious talk about a god with a plan in a world where poverty and illness were as common as they were in ours? To speak of God’s love and justice felt naive, or cruel.

Could the idea of a god be reconciled with the things I saw around me? This question obsessed me in my last month in Cambodia. I consumed books on theology, trying to understand mystic conceptions of God, feminist conceptions of God, ecumenical conceptions of God. In New York, I was as interested in Ezra Koenig’s conception of God as anyone else’s.

In “Ya Hey” Koenig raged against the God who wouldn’t say His name or reveal Himself. It was a shrill medley of drums, bass, vocoder, and gospel chanting. The title’s inversion of “Yahweh,” the Hebrew name for God, adhered to the scriptural commandment against taking God’s name in vain, respecting God’s wishes even while blaspheming. I appreciated the nod to piety, just as I appreciated the song’s challenge to God’s entire character.

The chorus of “Worship You” adopted the conventions of modern worship music, with its lyric repetitiveness and simple, upbeat instrumentation, only to subvert that music’s message.

Only in the way you want it
Only on the day you want it
Only with the understanding
Every single day you want it
You, you

Calling on a change, we want it
Calling on the same, we want it
Calling for the misery to always be explained
You, you

Thought I wasn’t sure I shared Koenig’s scorn of God, I was nonetheless grateful someone was expressing it. Doubt had settled around me like fog around skyscrapers. I wanted to stand in that doubt, listening to music that challenged God on His inscrutability.

I left New York and returned to my “normal” life in Canada. Sometimes, I was deeply sad, and sometimes, I was very happy. I played “Ya Hey” and “Step” over and over again.

I reconnected with an old flame. One night, I laughed with him as we watched Aziz Ansari’s stand-up. The next, I cried in his bed.

I shouldn’t have been sad upon reuniting with someone I loved. It made as much sense as pointing out God’s selfishness in a worship song.

We lay together, silent for a long time.

“I feel sad,” I finally said.

He stroked my hair. “It’s good you can say that. Do you know why you’re sad?”

I didn’t. The not knowing was as difficult as the sadness itself.

Later, I asked this man I loved how he conceived of God. He said he viewed God like a parent of adult children, where the mistakes were on us, the kids. He said he recognized how irrational the idea of God was, but so too was the idea of love, and he knew love existed.

Modern Vampires of the City ends quietly. Single, lonely piano notes open the song, and a guitar’s strings are gently plucked. Then Koenig repeats the same line in a cappella harmonies, which is the most religious way to sing a song. It is a comforting end to the album, and a soothing response to my confusion.

You take your time, young lion
You take your time, young lion
You take your time, young lion
You take your time, young lion


Allison Jane Smith lives in Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in Nowhere, The Ampersand Review, and Killing the Buddha, among others. Follow her at @asmithb and read more of her work at www.allisonjanesmith.com. More from this author →