Once the disappointment wanes that there’s nothing on here as stunning as “Diane Young” or “Hannah Hunt” (although lead single “Harmony Hall” comes pretty close), you’ll quickly fall in love with Father of the Bride as you have done every other Vampire Weekend album. Each and every song hits the sweet spot: crisp, expertly crafted and pared down to last not a second longer than needed, and inevitably leaving you craving more. The 58 minutes of this album seem to fly by.
Which is why I’ve been a little confused with the reception to this “double album” – almost every review that I’ve read has compared it to The White Album, and I keep reading words like “sprawling” and “loose” used to describe it. “Loose” is fair enough: there’s plenty of studio chatter and animal noises that crop up between tracks, as well as hissing and crackling. But these are features of more rock & roll albums than I can count; rock music is often “loose” and ramshackle by nature, and Father of the Bride doesn’t seem any looser than hundreds of others.
But “sprawling”? I just don’t get it. Do they mean it goes off in many different musical directions (like every other Vampire Weekend album)? Or do people simply just make that comparison because Father of the Bride is a “double album”, so that they expect it to be “sprawling”? The truth is, although the vinyl copy of the album might be a double LP, most people will be streaming Father of the Bride, so it can hardly be described as a “double album” in this day and age. I mean, it lasts less than an hour (only 15 minutes longer than Modern Vampires of the City)! That’s less than countless modern rock albums. Is this one really such a sprawl?
The White Album was made under exceptionally trying circumstances where all of the members of The Beatles were pulling away from each other in separate musical directions. Whereas Father of the Bride, with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, sees Vampire Weekend become very much the singular vision of Ezra Koenig. Unlike The Beatles with their four-way split, Koenig writes all the tracks (with a little help from producer Ariel Rechtshaid and some other friends), and as such the album feels musically and lyrically cohesive. It has a warm, acoustic-based sound centred on guitar and piano, with stylistic deviations that never stray too far from this core, and subject matters that are pursued again and again such as Judeo-Christianity, death, failed relationships, flowers, money, racism, and marriage.
So The White Album really is a “sprawling” and “loose” mess, but Father of the Bride actually isn’t. It’s the result of 6 years of hard work from Ezra Koenig and his pals, and it’s paid off. It’s a streamlined barrage of musical pleasure.
There are so many details to enjoy that even after obsessively listening all weekend I suspect that I’ve barely scratched the surface: the 3 duets with Danielle Haim that get more country and western as they go on (and the backing vocals she provides on many more songs), the Steve Lacy collaborations on two wildly different songs about flowers, Koenig’s continued adventures in the land of vocoder and autotune, the bewildering array of obscure samples that pop up all over the place including the Choir of All Saints from Honiara on “Hold You Now” and Haruomi Hosono on “2021” (perfectly chosen, both of them). Songs that at first sound repellent or weird, such as the amalgamation of the “Bad” riff and flamenco that is “Sympathy”, soon grow on you and have you itching to press replay. Bizarre harmonies and unexpected juxtapositions, such as the gorgeous acoustic guitar riff that begins “Harmony Hall” and the jam band experimentation that eventually succeeds it (influenced by Phish and the Grateful Dead, some have theorised), sound like they were always meant to be together after several listens.
Talking about always being meant to be together, Ezra Koenig married actress Rashida Jones and moved to L.A. during the making of this album. And it shows. Father of the Bride is Vampire Weekend’s most unabashedly romantic album, from the title on down, with the thrills and woes of romantic relationships forming the crux of most of the songs (even the political ones). Marriage is repeatedly referred to throughout, and the third Danielle Haim duet is an irresistibly corny country pastiche called “We Belong Together”, which claims the couple go together “like Keats and Yeats”.
This has led to another misconception about the album: that it’s a sunny and chirpy left-turn away from the spiritual darkness of Modern Vampires of the City. Mike Powell wrote in Pitchfork that he hears on Father of the Bride “songs of contentment sung by people who have tended to feel agitated, songs of belonging by people who have tended to feel as though they don’t belong”.
Belonging? What about this line from “Harmony Hall”, which captures the awful racist exclusionary clichés of anti-Semitism in painful detail: “Beneath these velvet gloves I hide/The shameful, crooked hands of a moneylender”. Contentment? That word just can’t be applied unreservedly to an album where one of the choruses goes: “How long ’til we sink to the bottom of the sea?/How long, how long?”, and another goes “You’ve been cheating on, cheating on me/I’ve been cheating on, cheating on you.”
Critics are often peculiarly wary of happiness in music – Mike Powell himself says in the same review “Generally speaking, happiness doesn’t make for great art”. He’s wrong: one-dimensional happiness, such as that plagues Taylor Swift’s latest single, for instance, doesn’t make for great art. But then neither does one-dimensional misery (hello, Nickelback), or one-dimensional anything for that matter.
Vampire Weekend are a great band because they straddle the divide between joy and pain as effortlessly as any of the greatest artists to have ever made music. Father of the Bride is mighty uplifting, sure, and musically generally upbeat. But dig deep and there’s complexity and pain in the nooks and crannies of every single song, in the lyrics and in the tremulous uncertainty of Ezra Koenig’s youthful voice.
It’s no accident that they’ve chosen to reprise a lyric from “Finger Back” on this album: “I don’t wanna live like this/But I don’t wanna die”. It sums up everything about Vampire Weekend’s worldview: the pain of being alive, but also the much greater fear of not being alive. You wouldn’t sing something like “I don’t wanna live like this” if you didn’t recognise some of the awful realities of human life – Trump and racism are tackled square-on on this album, after all. But you wouldn’t sing something like “I don’t wanna die”, especially not with with all the passionate sincerity that Koenig can muster, if you didn’t think there were more than enough joys on this planet to make life worth living.
So with Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend continue to make great art about happiness, depression, and everything in between. It will be truly fascinating to see where Ezra Koenig and Vampire Weekend go next, as their youth continues to fade.