A welcome return from one of the most compelling acts of the 21st century.
At 18 songs, Father of the Bride is Vampire Weekend’s most ambitious outing to date in terms of ideas stacked one atop the next. Where their first three albums felt like natural extensions of the previous – a musical and stylistic evolution that felt both unforced and the logical next step – Father of the Bride borrows elements of its predecessors as well as the past half century plus of pop music. It’s a “throw everything at the wall to see what sticks” approach that works only because of the strength of Ezra Koenig’s songwriting and winsome boyishness.
In other words, there is no real through line within the album; rather it is a collection of thematically akin pop exercises that explore love, heartbreak, loss and mortality. Certainly not breaking any new ground musically or lyrically, Koenig and company still manage to distill well-worn ideas into something at once vaguely familiar and yet unmistakably the work of Vampire Weekend.
Much of this is due to Koenig’s inimitable voice, something that has anchored the band from the start. That said, Rostam Batmanglij’s absence is palpable, each song’s arrangements and compositional elements less grandiose than their predecessors. As was evident in Batmanglij’s work on Hamilton Leithauser’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, his contributions to the Vampire Weekend sound were essentially what made the band’s sound so distinct. Indeed, were Leithauser’s vocals to have been stripped from any number of tracks on I Had a Dream it could’ve just as easily passed for a Koenig-less Vampire Weekend song. Without his hand in the mix, Father of the Bride plays more as a Koenig solo album that occasionally alludes to his band’s previous achievements.
But this also allows Koenig, along with drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, to get back to basics, stripping the songs to their barest of essentials. “Unbearably White,” a song that could be a commentary on the band’s beginnings or a literal recounting of a mountaintop excursion, is built almost exclusively on bass, drums and Koenig’s vocals. This approach helps bring Koenig’s collegiate lyrics and enviable gift for hooks to the fore.
It also affords a more intimate approach, both musically and lyrically, that frees Koenig to delve deeper into issues both personal and political. “Married in a Gold Rush” splits the difference between the two, while “Rich Man” and “This Life” are far more personal. “Baby, I know pain is as natural as the rain/ I just thought it didn’t rain in California” he sings on “This Life,” a song about mutual infidelity and the toll it takes on a relationship.
There is also a noticeable shift from a more East Coast mindset to one deeply rooted in the carefree California aesthetic. Where the band’s three previous albums sounded like the byproduct of academic intellectuals fresh out of school, Father of the Bride feels more like an homage to pop with a decidedly more mature, domesticated California-leaning aesthetic. You can actually feel the sunshine permeating the darker corners of Father of the Bride, preventing any shadows from creeping in to accompany some of the darker subject matter.
Favoring major key motifs and big, ear-worm-y choruses, Father of the Bride sounds both current and timeless. In this, it transcends its most obvious influences to join some of the grander experiments of pop’s past. Think of it as a sort of reverse Pet Sounds in terms of the band’s ambitions verses the stark musical contrast from their past work or, if not quite Sgt. Pepper, certainly in the vein of The Beatles or even Abbey Road. More so than anything else, Father of the Bride is the sound of a band six years away, down a member and coming to terms with the fucked-up-ness of our modern world. It’s alternately beautiful, messy, confounding, joyful and celebratory. Short of their best work (that being Modern Vampires of the City), Father of the Bride is nonetheless a welcome return from one of the most compelling acts of the 21st century.