At 18 songs in under an hour, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years sounds at first like a manic effort to make up lost time. Singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig, the band’s composer-lyricist and a co-producer on virtually every track, has stuffed his hooks and bridges with so many change-ups in rhythm, guitar tone and dramatic instrumental flourish that, by the finish, you feel like you’ve been whipped through a modern-pop homage to the Beatles’ Abbey Road medley – twice over.
Father of the Bride is so zealously detailed and meticulously contoured that you easily sink into its inventions: the whirl of country picking, surf-guitar twang and classical interlude in “Harmony Hall”; the loopy hip-hop of “Sunflower” with its creeping-vocal riff; the Soweto-like bounce and AutoTuned-Beach Boys-style chorale in “Flower Moon.” But this is ear candy loaded with trouble. Frustration, helplessness and romantic crisis come just like the songs, in grenade-like bursts, as Koenig delivers bad news like the “wicked snakes” in “Harmony Hall” (“Inside a place/You thought was dignified”) with disarmingly clean-cut vocal brio.
“Unbearably White” could easily be read as Koenig’s self-deprecating twist on his singing and his band: Vampire Weekend’s Ivy League origins, the breezy Afro-Caribbean cadence of their early records. In fact, the title comes from images of chilly, suffocating emptiness (heavy snow on the verge of an avalanche; a blank diary page awaiting confession), served with slinky guitar, fluid jazz-fusion bass and fluttering orchestration. In “How Long,” Koenig undercuts the comic flair – funky-Seventies guitar, foghorn synth – with snarky bitterness. And in his trilogy of duets with Danielle Haim (of the Los Angeles trio Haim), spread across the album like a serial, the two joust from breakup to happy-ever-after like an indie-rock version of Johnny and June Cash. “Hallelujah you’re still mine/All I did was waste your time,” Koenig croons in the campy finale “We Belong Together,” which evokes Kanye West producing Wings’ “Mull of Kintyre.”
Much has changed for Vampire Weekend between this album and their last, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City. The New York-born group is now a trio: Koenig, drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio. Multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij left in early 2016, insisting he would still work with Koenig. But Batmanglij appears once on this album as a producer and co-writer, while Koenig – who is now based in L.A. and lent a writer-producer hand to Beyoncé’s 2016 hit “Hold Up” – broadens his reach here, collaborating with pop and hip-hop outsiders Bloodpop and DJ Dahi.
Aside from the New Order-style inferno “Sympathy” and the flashback to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” in “This Life,” there is very little rock on Father of the Bride, at least of the kind that defined New York’s turn-of-the-millennium guitar-band boom. Vampire Weekend were late arrivals, lacking the Strokes’ switch-blade attitude and the art-punk edge of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But Vampire Weekend now look like the smartest guys in the room, marshalling a sumptuous, emotionally complex music perfect in this pop moment. “Sooner or later the story gets told,” Koenig sings in “Unbearably White.” “To tell it myself would be unbearably bold.” Then he tells it to extremes.