Since 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, an emotionally nuanced album of myriad sonic moods, Vampire Weekend has been on something of a hiatus, but not one in which the band as individuals have experienced much quiet. From solo albums and side projects and roundabout co-writes with Beyoncé, all four members have kept busy, but in terms of sheer output, none seem to have occupied themselves quite as much yet as bass guitarist Chris Baio.
On Man of the World, Baio’s second solo album, the listener is invited to ease themselves into a synth-laden fever dream. The impressions are at once smooth and casual, with an undercurrent of deep anxiety. For his part, Baio has stated as much plainly, saying that two major influences on the album’s lyrical themes are the ascendance of Donald Trump and Brexit, which was voted into being not long after he took up residence in London.
Probably the most pleasantly surprising thing about both this and 2015’s The Names is how well-suited Baio is for center stage. In the context of Vampire Weekend, he exists in the rhythmic outskirts of Ezra Koenig and Rastam Batmanglij’s frenetic, exploratory songwriting, smoothing their curveballs with technical but understated bass lines. Here in the spotlight, Baio’s talents as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist are impeccable; Man of the World functions well as a showcase for his deep, soothing voice and penchant for unexpected hooks.
An obvious connection to David Bowie is rightfully to be made here, with the similarities between the two singers’ voices and Man of the World’s undercurrent of darkness, but Baio simultaneously engages with the synth pop tradition set by vocalists like Dave Gahan and Curt Smith. It isn’t hard to trace lines from Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears to tracks like “DANGEROUE ANAMAL” and “Man of the World.”
Despite the anxieties that Baio engages with in extracurriculars, like interviews and social media, the overall tone of Man of the World feels a little too simple for such looming matters as populism and xenophobia. Lyrically, he plays things close to the chest, favoring straightforwardness. On some songs, like “Vin Mariani,” this helps accentuate the point, but when Baio sings “even my tears cry” on “Sensitive Guy,” it becomes virtually impossible for one’s eyes not to roll.
In these compositions, Baio seems careful not to lean too hard into the territory of his band. The baroque chamber imagery and sounds of Vampire Weekend are mostly absent, but make occasional cameos, such as on “The Key is Under the Mat.” Mostly, this song feels like a rejected Vampire Weekend demo and is easily one of the more forgettable tracks on the album; it is in Baio’s favor that he more often explores a different pop purview.
It’s pretty easy to say that Man of the World is a good album. It’s harder to make the case that it’s great. It feels like an Off-Broadway musical where the strings have been replaced with guttural synths, and so it is most assuredly not an album for all ears. This is of course part of the charm, and it simply cannot be overstated how well Chris Baio is suited for the role he wrote himself here. Though the album has its fair share of moments that don’t work, the adventure of observing the artist in new skin, as it were, is worth the time.