Monday, February 4th, 2019

Vampire Weekend – Harmony Hall

So I was going to re-use one of our taglines from previous entries as a hat-tip to self-referencing, but none of them made sense in context. So you’ll have to make do with editorial whingeing instead.


Hannah Jocelyn: Like most people, I pressed play expecting to gawk at how much of a mess this is, and “Harmony Hall” initially sounds like the slick, misguided pop crossover everyone feared, but the melancholy edge of Modern Vampires is both less noticeable and more present than ever. An early Vampire Weekend song could start with that guitar riff, but not the low, warm synth pad. Even Modern Vampires would be gloriously cluttered with sounds, yet Manny Marroquin’s mix is intensely spacious — the choirs panned to the left and stay there, the delays ping-ponging then abruptly cutting out. No one listens to Vampire Weekend for social commentary, but Koenig goes beyond “Trump bad,” instead focusing on the return of hate groups and the reemergence of anti-semitism (hiding that particular vulnerability “beneath these velvet gloves”). The callback to “I don’t want to live like this/but I don’t want to die” works because how tired it sounds. The line was gleeful and drawn-out in 2013, but in 2019 it’s just a throwaway line to nod to the default mood. Another week, a thousand media jobs laid off, another hate crimeanother swastika on a college campus, every refresh of a Twitter feed another potential verse of “Love It If We Made It” (obviously intentional on Matt Healy’s part.) This isn’t happy-but-secretly-sad; it’s what happy sounds like when sad is normal. 

Ian Mathers: I think I emitted an audible little laugh in my cubicle when I first heard “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die” (you and me both, buddy). Something about that “Sympathy for the Devil” rolling percussion and the piano and even Ezra Koenig’s current delivery makes this mostly sound like something I might have heard on oldies radio on a family road trip when I was a kid (i.e. before they added the 80s and 90s to those stations), except… better? I don’t know, every time I think I’m done with these guys they grab me again somehow. I guess you can sign me up for [checks stories about new album]… Father of the Bride. Sigh.

Claire Biddles: Vampire Weekend are virtuosos at encapsulating a very evocative (and I hate to say it, very millennial) melancholic yearning: a hyper-specific nostalgia for the recent past. How delicious, then, to find this distilled not just in the lyrical content, but conceptually: a callback to an album track from five years ago, when our troubles felt so huge.

Thomas Inskeep: Starts out sounding like wimpy early ’70s male folk, and by just past the chorus it’s almost got a ’73 Stones vibe going (we’re this close to a gospel choir coming in, and yes, that was a vibraslap) — so is this their Arcade Fire arena move? The biggest problem here is that, it’s still Vampire Weekend, so it’s still all too wimpy.

Katie Gill: This is a friggin’ weird song. The beautiful discordance of the depressing lyrics with the bubbly sound makes sense. The surprise piano solo in the middle of the song kind of makes sense. But I just can’t wrap my head around why this song sounds so intensely dorky. Is it the plinky piano background? Is it that dumb percussion bit before “anger wants a voice”? Is it the fact that it’s 2019 and I’m getting Paul Simon flashbacks? Seriously, swap out that piano for a horn section and you’ve got the b-side to “You Can Call Me Al.” No matter what, you have to hand it to Vampire Weekend. They’ve certainly made something with a unique sound and something that I suspect will be talked about for weeks, if not months.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: With “Harmony Hall,” Koenig’s revealed himself as having anxieties aplenty, and it’s loudly signaled with a self-referential lyric (“I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die”). There’s grief caused by the corruption hidden inside seemingly honorable institutions, and the song’s chipper and (regrettably) Grateful Dead-like instrumentation mimics this duplicity. But more than this, such revelations have found Koenig reflecting on his own identity — as a musician, as a Jewish-American, as a member of the upper middle class — and what he can do. In hearing the guitar figure constantly repeat, one becomes privy to its false sense of security: “I thought that I was free from all that questioning/But every time a problem ends, another one begins.” The melody’s smooth ascent and cascading descent is an unmistakable Dave Longstreth contribution, but this fact doesn’t make “Harmony Hall” any less about Koenig’s personal turmoil; it finds him stepping out to unearth concrete answers.

Josh Love: Vampire Weekend are valedictorians of indie’s last decade, having not made a significant misstep, cranking out the consistently tuneful and clever alt-pop that’s made them a hip millennial’s staple and a top-shelf critical darling. Unlike say MIA or LCD Soundsystem or Arcade Fire, they’ve never seemed like overreaching or underdelivering, all of their endeavors perfectly-coiffed. After a lengthy hiatus, not a hair’s out of place and you can’t point to anything being demonstrably wrong here. What’s worrying though is that “Harmony Hall” accomplishes in five minutes no more than it could have managed in half that time. The first couple of verses and chorus are catchy, smart, and sufficiently dynamic, Koenig meditating on Jewishness and doing call-backs to the even more faith-informed “Finger Back” from the band’s last album, over a piano lick that puts me in mind of Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More,” or more more more specifically, the better song that nicked it, Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.” Too bad the last half of “Harmony Hall” is all diminishing returns; I kept waiting for something to make this elongated running time worthwhile but the back end offers nothing more than a baroque passage and a new piano flourish or two. Hopefully this song’s not entirely a harbinger for the remainder of Father of the Bride; I’d hate for Vampire Weekend to have aged into being that former head of the class who’s a self-satisfied bore at the reunion.

Vikram Joseph: I’ve always associated Vampire Weekend with clear, sparkling late winter days; there’s something about their sound that lends itself to that kind of light, and a wide-eyed optimism that suggests warmer days might not be far off. Fitting, then, that “Harmony Hall” should appear now; they’ve never sounded so crisp, so open or just so much like Paul Simon. The intricate Baroque guitar and flurries of electric piano are accoutrements which could render a song starchy and formal, but  Vampire Weekend carry them off with effortless flair and a nonchalant grin. Ezra Koenig alludes deftly, though unambiguously, to politics; “Anger needs a voice/voices wanna sing/Singers harmonise ’til they can’t hear anything” is a pretty eloquent description of the chaos of current discourse. Much like a young Stuart Murdoch sang with just the right combination of pathos and conspiratorial wit to pull off Belle & Sebastian’s red-wine-stained stories of sexual misadventure and tentative affection, Koenig’s voice has an intoxicating blend of empathy, lightness and desperation which in the past has allowed him to get away with a lot of highbrow wordplay, and which here makes the song’s headline (“I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die”) feel like both a weary joke and a howl of personal, political despair that rings out through decades. Musically, though, “Harmony Hall” is a fleet-footed thing of joy, the balletic “ooooh”s in the post-chorus like arcs strung out across the country, a reminder that beauty exists even in dark times.

Matias Taylor: Getting the words to dance as much as that nimble piano line is tricky, but six years on Vampire Weekend’s lyrical and melodic gifts are as sharp as ever.

Alfred Soto: As allusive as usual — I hear George Michael, “Mrs. Robinson,” their own “Finger Back” — the latest from the sometime quartet, an-album-every-six-years men of leisure, affirms their faith in keeping them from the brink of the great surrender. “I thought I was free from all that questioning,” Ezra Koenig yelps, a self-deception. He’s smarter than that. Yet he clings to his arpeggios as a grandmother to a handrail. He knows music. It won’t keep him safe.

Reader average: [7.12] (8 votes)

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4 Responses to “Vampire Weekend – Harmony Hall”

  1. Here’s how much I was unable to get into (most of) Modern Vampires of the City: until I saw this post, I had no idea the refrain was a callback to one of their older songs. First two records are still good, though.

  2. Couldn’t get myself together enough to write about this one/couldn’t actually figure how to write about it but this is an 8 from me. Lots of lovely writing in here!

  3. Oh yay I’m pleasantly surprised to see this get a good score. I like that after three very capital c Cool albums (all of which I love)
    Ezra is happy for VW to channel shit like the Dead and lay on some Lynyrd Skynyrd pianos (dad rock influences that align with his ascent to fatherhood?). It’s not tasteless but it’s not preoccupied with trying to be fashionable, which is refreshing.

    I won’t hear a word against the vibraslap.

  4. forgot to finish submitting the blurb, but here’s my [9]:

    “Harmony Hall” is entirely too much. It’s the sound of a band (and especially its frontman) having every possible midlife crisis at once, with all of the messy musical signifiers of growing up sitting in the same space all at once. You’ve got a faux-folky guitar figure that loops until it stops sounding like anything at all, breaking into a piano figure that sounds rootsy until you realize it’s just “Freedom ‘90” all over again, except with drums and ambiance that do nothing more than remind me of “A$AP Forever.” That isn’t even going into the later sections of the song, which erupt into the most weirdly joyful Grateful Dead pastiche I’ve heard in a very long time. But is there a point to all of this signifying of artistic old age, of drawing on the palettes of some of the most obviously inward-nostalgic pieces of pop music of the past few decades? Or is it just a trolling move from a band whose entire existence has felt like a series of injokes that you’re wavering on the line of understanding. In this case, the band seems sincere and so does the singer, but in different directions— the music joyful but Ezra paranoid, worried about anti-semitism and choruses of hate and old college grudges again. It’s an uneasy song, aware of its own corniness and obviousness while simultaneously striving for something more sublime. And in that dialectical tension it does find something, or at least I’ve found something: a way to age gracefully, to acknowledge the past and wipe it away all in one stroke.