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Rostam: Changephobia

Is there ever going to be a time that the music of Rostam Batmanglij isn’t defined by his previous life as the man responsible for the sound of Vampire Weekend’s first three albums? It’s hard to say. Which is a cheap answer, sure, but a musician as talented (and distinct!) as Rostam forces us to ask ourselves a lot of tough questions about the life of a solo artist who has removed themselves from the band that made them something of a household name — or, at least, a household name in a house cool enough to have opinions on Vampire Weekend and the ability to pronounce “Batmanglij.” But, let’s look at it from another angle: with Contra and Modern Vampires of the City, his fingerprints are everywhere. This isn’t like guitarist/producer Chris Walla leaving the straightforward rock band Death Cab for Cutie — they’ll always be a rock band. But Vampire Weekend lent itself to the odd sonic idiosyncrasies of Rostam, and it’s no wonder their first album without him — 2019’s still-excellent Father of the Bride — throws many different sounds and sensations out in an effort to realign its priorities.

Even separated from that act — either solo, with Walkmen frontperson Hamilton Leithauser or in his team-up with Ra Ra Riot’s Wesley Miles under the name Discovery — the same sounds and moods that made Contra and Modern Vampires so engaging are still easy to spot, even when he works to create something else entirely. Likewise, his newest album Changephobia still bears the sonic fingerprints of the albums that came before it — but, and this is extremely important, this is absolutely not a bad thing. Much like his debut, or Discovery’s LP, or I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, we’re given the best case scenario for an artist from a well-known, well-loved band forging their own path. Not everyone can pull this off — Paul Banks’ solo album still sounds like Interpol, and Radiohead’s The King of Limbs sounds like it could have been a follow-up to Thom Yorke’s The Eraser — but with Changephobia, we see the virtue in an artist who still has interesting things to say with their sound, unafraid to not reinvent himself.

So, let’s not call Changephobia “safe.” It’s an easy one to use for albums like this — it’s interesting and engaging, but it doesn’t ever break the mold or push Rostam’s sonic palette. Fairly often, you’ll want him to break loose a little bit, like he does on “4Runner,” which has the same energy as “Superbike” from Jay Som’s superb Anak Ko, giving the sensation of a bedroom pop song that is itching to turn into a skyscraper. What Changephobia is, though, is “comfortable.” Even when he gets into messy bundles of horn noises amidst the gentle beats of “Unfold You,” it stops just shy of abrasiveness. In fact, the entire album stays as far away from making you feel any discomfort at all, with the exception of the explosive ending of “Kinney.” Your mileage may vary on whether the album is “comfortable” or just “dull,” but after a decade spent behind the scenes, helping to craft forward-thinking pop with people like like Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange, Lykke Li and Charli XCX, it can’t be said that he doesn’t know how to build an atmosphere. The drawback, though, is that spending as much time crafting other people’s vision as Rostam has can often lead to losing your own way a little bit. Changephobia is clearly his work — and any nerd who has spent the 13 years since Vampire Weekend obsessing over the sonic choices he makes will see that as clear as day in every single song — but it takes an exceptionally long time for the whole thing to fully sink in.

And, because this is a Rostam record, the entire affair is very, very gay. The complicated and bittersweet tenderness of queerness has been a staple of his music for a very long time now — Discovery was a record loaded with gay anthems and implied queerness (see: “Osaka Loop Line” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” — and Changephobia is no different. The album’s title track plays with it in abstract, expressing anxieties that he might “stumble on a question that might upset the structure of the world in which we lived” before arriving at an even bigger question: “Is it just changеphobia/ That makes us scared/ Of doing what we should?” Internal and external conflict fuels many songs of Changephobia, especially “To Communicate,” which plainly lays this out: “You said a discrepancy in style may account for a conflict between us, but/ I was not able to communicate before,” presenting us with one of the most emotionally honest and self-aware choruses you’ll hear in 2021.

Sometimes, though, he’ll just strip away all the overly complicated feelings and go for something a little more low-level. For as simple and sweet as it is, “From the Back of a Cab” is one of the best songs on the album: it’s a tender song that exists within the all-too-fleeting moments that exist in the night before the person you love (or, really, whatever you feel for them) leaves on a plane — a feeling that will be all-too familiar to anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship. We don’t need every song to be like opener “These Kids We Know,” which tackles the no-pressure task of fixing the whole world: “Ain’t proud of where we’re going/ You say we can’t afford the slow down/ But the skies won’t take it no more/ So we’re gonna slowly pull the earth back together.” We know he can nail songs this dramatic — it’s almost more fun to see him when he’s making tender little songs about having a resentful relationship with airports.

But here’s the bummer: though Rostam is masterfully talented, and though Changephobia is a lovely album full of sweet songs, it never quite gets to the point of feeling vital. We’ve watched him make music more daring and complicated than these songs; Vampire Weekend songs like “Obvious Bicycle,” “Hudson,” and “Diplomat’s Son” have taught us that he’s not afraid to go for broke and try on new atmospheres. Yet, the biggest disappointment of it is the fact that the album itself seems to give us the impression that Rostam is afraid to change, to evolve, to make music as knotty and engaging as we’ve seen him get, while still making it poppy. Is Changephobia meant to be changephobic? Even if it is, it would have been more satisfying if that self-awareness translated to an album more willing to not play it safe.

Summary
Is Changephobia meant to be changephobic? Even if it is, it would have been more satisfying if that self-awareness translated to an album more willing to not play it safe.
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Change Phobic
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