Before he was riding high as one of modern rock’s most prominent frontmen, Ezra Koenig was already a skilled wordsmith, submitting quirky short stories to his university’s literary magazine with hopes of tackling “post-hippie domesticity and the tenuous connection between preppiness and colonialism.” It’s safe to say that this goal came to fruition with Vampire Weekend, elevating rock music by intrinsically tying it to heightened, polished language. Caught somewhere between The Left Banke and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Ivy League kids clad in boat shoes went from underground darling to the internet’s favorite band in a matter of weeks, repurposing preppy co-ed culture and African beats, and earning them comparisons to Graceland era Paul Simon.
A refreshing shift from anything else that was in the foreground at the time, Vampire Weekend’s debut record was a culmination of indie rock breaking free of its genre limitations and connecting with a wider audience, steering college radio toward an acceptance of left-of-center pop music.
Recorded in barns and basements and produced by a member of the band, the album was made on a DIY budget, but its esoteric lyricism and bouncy, summer aesthetic gave college kids something to latch onto. Crafting a sound Koenig dubbed “Upper West Side Soweto” and taking stabs at WASP sensibilities, Vampire Weekend would serve as the perfect time capsule for the changing tides.
The record opens with the perky, bubbly keyboard notes of “Mansard Roof,” a reggae-influenced track that taught college kids around the globe about Gilded Age Neo-Gothic architecture. A criticism of elitism that could easily be mistaken for endorsement by the casual listener, the song focuses on exact imagery in order to highlight changes in perception. Marrying Afro-pop organ with swooning cello, this is the perfect introduction to a band that so affectionately wears its influences on its sleeve.
“Mansard Roof” skillfully melts into the wildly successful “Oxford Comma,” a mellow rejection of affluent entitlement. It showed the band experimenting with a layered sound, with cheery carousel organ, high-pitched guitars, and Chris Tomson creating a hip-hop beat between the snare head and rim. The verses bridge the teachings of the Dalai Lama and the lyrics of Lil Jon, finding universal truths in both and showcasing harmony where others see contradiction. “Oxford Comma” finds the band rebelling against the status quo, represented by the strict grammar code. The song also demonstrates the cinematic ambitions of Vampire Weekend, particularly present in the pictorial music video directed by British comedian Richard Ayoade.
Before it was punctuating comedic moments in film and serving as the soundtrack for frat parties everywhere, “A-Punk” was simply a short, snappy pop tune with a bouncy, infectious melody and a killer baseline, courtesy of Chris Baio. With lyrics that are intentionally difficult to decipher, the song transcends a need for complete understanding. With its raucous energy, “A-Punk” plays like a Ramones song produced by Wes Anderson. When is the last time you heard a dance track that included a chamberlin? When Vampire Weekend exploded onto the scene, it was this track that forcibly led the way.
The most Paul Simon-esque song on the record, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” served as the connective tissue between wealthy prep school mantras and the band’s worldbeat influences, leaning on diverse instrumentation. The song is a microcosm of what people dislike about Vampire Weekend, although they only include elitist references to point out their ridiculousness. It is an atmospheric, mocking jab at entitlement, and it even manages to slip hidden profanity into its chorus.
“M79” boasts non-stop energy from the get-go, giving baroque chamber pop a postmodern update, featuring a whirling harpsichord and the most inspired use of a string section on a Vampire Weekend track. The song finds Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij learning how to blend their voices, making for a delightful sing-a-long. Lyrically, the track is compiled of a grocery list of complex references and inside jokes, even name-checking one of Batmanglij’s former schoolmates.
While the entire album is rife with nods to institutions of higher learning, “Campus” is the most overt about its university setting. As jaunty guitars and playful vocals provide a breezy, summer atmosphere, the song addresses the bittersweet complexities of young love, as well as the carefree spirit of college life. Aside from being a lively, genial addition to Vampire Weekend’s songbook, “Campus” is also notable for causing countless fans to Google what a “keffiyeh” is.
Riffing on its waltzy time signature and poetic rhyme scheme, “Bryn” feels like a Strokes song played in the upper range. Just as the record should be falling into its backslide, it refuses to release its momentum. Chronicling the loneliness of traversing the North American continent on tour, the song opts to discuss longing in academic terms: “Ion displacement won’t work in the basement / Especially when I’m not with you.” We channel our feelings through the lens that best suits our own individual personalities, and this is what it can look like when academic types process yearning.
Continuing to pull inspiration from the strangest of places, “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” was born out of a reference to Metallica. The band has always boasted a fascination with the bizarre, and this is arguably the most enigmatic tune in Vampire Weekend lore. With its whimsical call-and-response chorus and its ever-changing orchestration and structure, “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” is a quirky take-down of the restrictions of class warfare: “Oh, your collegiate grief has left you dowdy in sweatshirts / Absolute horror!”
Compared to the rest of the record, “I Stand Corrected” is a straightforward, minimalist masterpiece. The Afro-pop beats, funky bass grooves, and piping guitars subside to make way for lush string arrangements, highlighting the soft finesse of Ezra Koenig’s graceful voice. But this is truly Chris Tomson’s moment to shine, as his dynamic drum patterns serve as the backbone of the track.
Based on the protagonist of a student film Ezra Koenig had aspired to make (the same one that would give the band its name), “Walcott” tells the story of survival as savage blood suckers take over New England, leaving a preppy college kid to fend for himself. With speedy pianos, crashing symbols, and a repetitive, catchy earworm of a hook, this high energy set-closer is the perfect tempo to get the heart pumping. Just when the momentum is almost too much to handle, the song explodes into string-heavy euphoria.
“The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” is the perfect bookend to the record, birthing a somber catharsis around the haunted past of the privileged elite and the waves of college graduated flooding into the corporate landscape. One of the band’s greatest downtempo numbers, “Kids” uses the pep of the keys to juxtapose the song’s defeatist leanings. It is a culmination of all the rich stylistic decisions that give the band such a distinctive sound.
Exploiting cultural capital and calypso influences, these hyper-energetic, idealistic college kids burst onto the scene with youthful enthusiasm and a working knowledge of world music. Vampire Weekend rode the wave of internet buzz to surprisingly sustainable stardom, largely due to their willingness to evolve. Although their follow-up efforts have been sporadic in the decade since the release of their debut, the vibrant and unassuming band continues to be a dominant presence in indie rock, often winning over even their harshest critics.