A friend of mine recently made the following observation about Ezra Koenig, the founder and lead singer of Vampire Weekend. “Did you realize,” he asked, “how Ezra has lately became a sex symbol among grad students?” Good for Koenig, who is a boyishly attractive pop star; bad for post-grads like us who can’t sing and who are fast approaching middle age.
Although the political debate around the band’s racial identity is not without interest, I find the formal qualities of Vampire Weekend songs far more gripping. Rather than presenting us with narratives built around a single character or theme, they document the texture of modern life by meticulously shedding light on ordinary and yet ecstatic experiences. Listening to their first two albums somewhat obsessively during 2010, I came to the conclusion that those songs were formally “picaresque” (to borrow a term from the English major’s lexicon that Koenig would doubtless appreciate). In prose fiction, “picaresque” is an umbrella term for pre-modern narratives structured around experiences of a rogue figure (a picaro, from the Spanish) whose adventures are related episodically, without any central theme or setting necessarily binding the story together. In a picaresque narrative, detail takes the place ordinarily assigned to theme; in The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt pointed to how “in the picaresque novel […] there are many passages of vivid and particularised physical description; but they are incidental and fragmentary.” Nor is the picaresque, which hit its peak in the mid-18th century with works like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), as concerned with representing historical or social reality as the bourgeois realist novel that followed it. Watt describes the picaro as a figure who “happens to have a real historical basis — the breakdown of the feudal social order — but this is not the point of his adventures; he is not so much a complete individual personality, whose actual life experiences are significant in themselves, as a literary convention for the presentation of a variety of satiric observations and comic episodes.”
Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” from their 2008 debut album Vampire Weekend, provides a good contemporary example of the picaresque.
On the face of it the song is about punctuation, but it quickly turns into a meditation on the subject of (mis)communication, which asks us to visualize the city of Dharamshala, hear the accent of the “highest Lama,” and think about the necessity of lying. The song’s similarly wayward video consists of a single shot that lasts more than three and a half minutes. It depicts the band’s visit to a commune-like place in the countryside, evoking the pastoral settings of many a picaresque novel (as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend). The protean hero of the adventure, played by none other than Koenig, finds himself in a linear, albeit comically incoherent, narrative populated by a large, diverse cast of characters. The video’s bookishness first manifests itself with the superimposition of a heading (CHAPTER ONE) on the video’s opening frames, which show a white car as it leaves the main road to draw a curve and move towards the camera. Koenig, clad in a matching white suit, gets out of the car and walks past what looks like a film crew before taking his guitar from a black-suited man who gets shot by a woman in a guerrilla outfit (one of many references in Vampire Weekend’s oeuvre to the culture of student radicalism). We are then provided with three more chapters and an epilogue, in which the band members interact with a group of kids playing cowboys and Indians, a pair of men carrying a desk through a meadow, and a gang of Beatle-booted fangirls who chase Koenig in the same white car in the video’s final moments.
Other early Vampire Weekend songs also play with the chance encounters and flashes of detail for its own sake often associated with the picaresque. “Then I see you / You’re walking ’cross the campus / Cruel professor / Studying romances,” Koenig sings in “Campus,” also from Vampire Weekend. “How am I supposed to pretend / I never want to see you again?” The obvious play here on “romance” — which refers to both a narrative genre and a love affair — attests to Koenig’s knowledge of literary history. Songs like “Campus” transfer the adventurous plots of the pre-modern romance to contemporary college life in the US, which are approached via a series of comic episodes.
Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra, continues in the picaresque mode, but here the band’s frame of reference has become increasingly urban. “Taxi Cab” finds the song’s main character riding around in an unsentimental mood, “sure of himself,” but we are not exactly sure about the nature of his journey, except that it provides a good vehicle for melancholy images and phrases like “Nostalgic for garbage.” “Run,” another song from the same album, features a character who believes he can run away with his lover (“Worlds away from cars and all the stars and bars / Where a little bit of competition means so much and a little bit of change is all / your little fingers touch”). He asks her to lead his “feet away, ’cause all they do is stay.” The lyrics express a certain anxiety about staying put; the characters in the album constantly insist on moving away from their reality.
As the adjective in the title of the band’s new album Modern Vampires of the City may imply, the picaresque structure of Vampire Weekend’s earlier songs are now being replaced by a modernist concentration on the texture of a metropolis. Their characteristic blend of clean guitar sounds, reggae-flavored rhythms, and poetically specific lyrics are happily still with us, and mix well to produce the impression of a journey taken on the streets of New York. The city — which appears on the album’s impressive cover as a mysterious geographical entity surrounded by sinister waves of fog — is not only the backdrop for the album but also the setting in which its songs are ideally to be consumed. It is there that we are expected to meet the visions and epiphanies described in Koenig’s lyrics.
A more apt comparison than Tom Jones here would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, that elaborate monument to a day in the life of a great European city. Joyce’s masterpiece begins with a scene in which a character prepares to shave: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” “Obvious Bicycle,” the first track on Modern Vampires of the City, starts similarly — although here the protagonist is none other than the listener:
Morning’s come, you’ve watched the red sun rise
The LED still flickers in your eyes
Oh you oughta spare your face the razor
Because no one’s gonna spare the time for you
What exactly is about to happen to you that you shouldn’t even bother to prepare for? (The listener is subsequently told to spare the world “your labor” and “a traitor,” and to “take your wager back and leave before you lose.”) You can call this a warning against illusions, or disenchantment: we are invited to acknowledge the disillusionment modern life brings, and guard ourselves against it. Before inviting us to step into the difficult terrain of modern reality, the song seems to check whether we can perceive things properly, without any grand expectations.
Most Viewed This Week on the Los Angeles Review of Books, June 29, 2013
You torched a Saab like a pile of leaves
I’d gone to find some better wheels
Four, five meters running round the bend
When the government agents surround you again
Such incendiary images bring to mind the character from the song “Horchata,” who considers wearing a balaclava, as well as the one from “I Think You’re A Contra” who has “revolution thoughts.” Political radicalism is just a small part of the urban experience evoked by Modern Vampires of the City, however. Listening to the album’s tracks dozens of times throughout the week I began to feel that the pleasure offered by it was related to the epic yet everyday proportions of the reality it attempted to describe. Like Joyce’s Dublin, New York is a secular metropolis in which religion is still deeply embedded, leading its citizens to question, daily, their capacity for belief. In “Unbelievers,” the world is described as a “cold, cold place to be.” With our “little souls” we “want a little warmth,” but the knowledge of “the fire that awaits unbelievers” unsettles us. In “Hannah Hunt,” Koenig is gently skeptical about the power of religion: “A man of faith said / Hidden eyes could see what I was thinking / I just smiled and […] glided on through Waverley and Lincoln.” In “Everlasting Arms,” he wonders whether he can be “made to serve a Master”: he gives a negative answer to the question (“Well I’m never going to understand / Never understand”). The theme recurs in “Ya Hey,” the album’s 10th track and emotional climax:
Oh, sweet thing,
Zion doesn’t love you,
And Babylon don’t love you,
But you love everything.
Oh, good God,
The faithless they don’t love you,
The zealous hearts don’t love you,
And that’s not gonna change.
Whereas earlier Vampire Weekend records took us on a romp through a field of signifiers (mansard roofs, Benetton ad campaigns, Saudi satellite dishes, “Richard Serra skate parks,” etc.), Modern Vampires of the City dials back the allusiveness and invites its listener to identify with the narrator, to get lost in the city with him and share his uneasy anticipation of ecstatic or sublime experiences. It poses questions about God, belief, and meaning alongside love and politics (the staple subjects of the group’s first two records). In “Young Lion,” the album’s impressive finale, we are provided with a closure of sorts. Again, the song addresses us in the second person: the phrase “you take your time, young lion,” is repeated continuously, as if to lull us to sleep. In the final chapter of Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s monologue concludes with a determined affirmation of life (“yes I said yes I will Yes”). Here, we are left with a sense of expectancy, and of promise.
I had intended to spend this year’s Bloomsday in Taksim Square and listen to Modern Vampires of the City there one more time. A few days ago the people in the square were in a festive mood; riot police were defending key buildings while the protestors seemed happy to be allowed to stay in Gezi Park. The scene had changed dramatically since I first visited the place. Flags of radical political groups were gone, torched cars were removed and Gezi seemed to be on its way to become Turkey’s Woodstock. Authors visited the park’s library and signed their books; a whirling dervish performed his traditional sufi dance; there were concerts, and I imagined Vampire Weekend playing a show there. I had got used to the routine of listening to Modern Vampires during the day (leaving the apartment with the opening song; spending the first 40 minutes of my day with the rest of the album) and now I wanted to enjoy the same songs in the park.
But my hopes of listening to Modern Vampires on Bloomsday in the park were dashed when antagonism between protestors and authorities culminated in violence. The government accepted protestors’ demands and asked them to clear the park; protestors said they had no intention of leaving the place; police attacked the park on June 16, clearing it out and completely removing the tents. This was followed by clashes on the streets and a curfew in all but name. Because I could no longer leave my apartment I spent the day indoors, listening to the song “Worship You”:
Only in the way you want it
Only on the day you want it
Only with the one stand and every single day you want it
City with the weight upon it
City in the way you want it