It’s official: Vampire Weekend really don’t give a fuck about an Oxford comma. On their third album, Ezra Koenig and the band have rid themselves, once and for all, of the precious post-collegiate references that used to be their calling card: The girls of Wellfleet have scattered, and apparently that second horchata didn’t go down as smooth as the first. Koenig is now an old 29; adulthood is inescapable; a clock is ticking in his head. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings broodingly, dropping dark nuggets that wouldn’t go over too well in a Tommy Hilfiger commercial: “There’s a headstone right in front of you/And everyone I know.” In “Obvious Bicycle,” he sings to a jobless friend who doesn’t have a reason to shave: “You ought to spare your face the razor/Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you.”
All of this might sound like a band in a third-album funk, except that Vampire Weekend have gotten better at just about everything they do. The grooves – always the thing that made the band’s twee side work – are more self-assured. “Finger Back” has all the energy of the group’s best uptempo tracks (“A-Punk,” “Cousins”) but flips it with a killer stutter-step beat by drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio. Koenig has become a more mature lyricist, editing out some of the hyperliteracy without dumbing down. For the first time, Vampire Weekend evoke the spirit of their old influence Paul Simon – making music with precise craft and soul that speaks to the heart of city life – without sounding anything like Graceland. The hymnlike harmonies of “Bicycle” are as pretty as anything they’ve ever written. “Unbelievers” has an easy hook that recalls another rocker they’ve looked up to, Tom Petty. “Hannah Hunt” lifts a simple story about an ambivalent couple driving across the country into something almost religious, with a crescendo that opens up like the coast of Santa Barbara, where our heroes end up, bickering.
God, of all people, looms large: He is a foil on “Unbelievers,” where Koenig sings about the fundamentalist half of the world wanting to throw him and his lady under the tracks of the train. The sweet “Everlasting Arms” is partly inspired by a 19th-century church song; “Worship You” references Paradise Lost (and Nick Cave). “Ya Hey” (rhymes with “Yahweh” – get it?) retells the Old Testament story of the burning bush, over a dubby groove. (It’s not the first reggae touch: Vampires takes its title from Jamaican singer Junior Reid’s 1990 track “One Blood.”)
The flip side of “Ya Hey” is “Diane Young,” a psychotically Auto-Tuned, twisted rockabilly song that’s a play on “dyin’ young.” Koenig sings about a well-lubricated Irish girl with the “luck of a Kennedy” (uh-oh) who ends up torching a Saab. Koenig doesn’t judge her, but he sure as hell doesn’t get in the car – it’s almost like he’s torching that whole Cape Cod thing, once and for all, saying goodbye to young adulthood as his band is pushing into awesome new directions. The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out. But the kids stand a chance.