2.5 stars (out of 4)
After two albums of mostly breezy, upbeat pop-rock tinged with exotic rhythms, Vampire Weekend gets darker, slower and weirder on “Modern Vampires of the City” (XL). With the band’s ace multi-instrumentalist, Rostam Batmanglij, producing alongside Ariel Rechtshaid, who has worked with Usher and Major Lazer, the album is steeped in studio trickery: warped vocals, oddball percussion, unexpected mergers of elegance and distortion.
“Obvious Bicycle” signals the shift, with what sounds like a stapler setting the tempo while Ezra Koening’s voice spirals into its upper register. “Listen, listen up, don’t wait,” he sings, as if urging fans to take the dive with him.
An ode to skepticism, “Unbelievers,” and the neo-rockabilly “Diane Young” recycle the familiar pep, but with warped vocals and machine-gun percussion. “Step” suggests a collision between chamber-pop and hip-hop, and “Hudson” weaves classical strings through industrial clang. Koening’s lyrics mix specific images of city life – falafel shops, street names – with a lurking anxiety about fading youth. “I want to know does it bother you/The low click of a ticking clock,” he sings on “Don’t Lie.”
The band still can come off too clever for its own good, with the spoken-word interlude in “Ya Hey” and the annoying chirpiness of “Finger Back.” But overall, the band has sacrificed the immediacy of the earlier records for something knottier and stranger. For those who once found the band a pleasant diversion at best, “Modern Vampires of the City” represents an intriguing left turn.