Vampire Weekend probably shouldn’t be famous. Four implausibly preppy kids from New England with a penchant for African music, songs about punctuation and Peter Gabriel does not usually make for a great listen.
However 2008’s Vampire Weekend was an uncommonly good debut album. Instantly likeable, it made the band a solid fixture in that year’s festival season, where many thousands found themselves singing along to the likes of ‘One (Blake’s Got A New Face)’ and ‘Oxford Comma’. Despite, or maybe because of their, idiosyncrasies, Vampire Weekend became a firm fixture: highbrow enough for the approval of self aware journalists and indie types yet direct enough for people to dance to. It seemed a certainty that people would want more but there was always the question of whether lightning could really strike twice. Could the magical alchemy of contrary reference points and left field sensibilities that Vampire Weekend practiced with ease on their debut really be repeated?
After the first listen to Contra it would be easily to conclude that they’ve lost it. Whilst undoubtedly sounding both grander and more accomplished, the warmth and immediacy of the first album is simply not present. Take ‘Diplomat’s Son’, for example: with drum machines, a MIA sample, classical flourishes and a homage to Toots and Maytal’s reggae classic ‘Pressure Drop’, it almost seems like too much is going on. Only lead-off single ‘Cousins’ replicates the dizzy and fizzy rush of the likes of ‘A-Punk’. Yet strangely you are compelled to listen to the album again and again until its full charm is gradually revealed. Part of the charm of Contra is its wilful obstinacy, it is an album that you have to digest on its own terms. With dense and lush instrumentations and frequent experimentation with polyrhythms, it advances the first album’s flirtation with African music into something both more mature and much more satisfying. Opener ‘Horchata’ is a prime example, a sinewy forest of marimbas and keyboards. It builds, beat by beat and instrument by instrument, into a life affirming and joyous wave of sound.
However what begins to shine out the most after repeated listens are front man Ezra Koening’s vocals. Instantly affecting and raw with emotion, they provide the easiest access into the songs. Even when he is singing what is seemingly nonsense, “In December drinking Horchata/I Look psychotic in a balaclava”, there is a tenderness and a purity that makes it hard not to connect with the song. Also despite the unashamed silliness of some of the lyrics, there impressionistic nature fits the texture of the music perfectly. There also seems to be a greater level of candour and honesty in the words this time round, what felt so guarded the first time round seems to have disappeared, with the lyrics taking on a more direct and open feel. Furthermore whilst the lyrics of the first album made it feel almost like a concept album about WASPs at university, the lyrics on Contra are altogether more global from the Mexican vistas of ‘Horchata’ to the sunshine of ‘California English’ to the references to Nicaragua in both ‘Diplomat’s Son’ and ‘I Think Ur A Contra’.
It is in its second half where the album really shines. In particular the three final songs, ‘Giving Up The Gun’, ‘Diplomat’s Son’ and ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ are as strong an argument as any as to why Vampire Weekend are the most exciting band to have emerged from New York since Talking Heads. Building gradually to the string-led finale of ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ each song feels like a perfect mini symphony. What is most impressive is how that with repeated listens the songs reveal themselves as pop songs chock full of gorgeous vocal hooks.
There are of course a few duff moments, most of all the scattershot word collage at the start of ‘California English’, which is also the weakest song on the album. However ultimately the album represents something of a triumph, a brilliantly constructed record that will reward listeners more and more with each subsequent hearing, at under 40 minutes in length the album represents a powerful and concise validation of the band. Many (including their bank managers) will have wanted them to have simply remade their first album, but instead they have produced an album that shows growth and maturity. The widening of the bands horizons does not ultimately feel like a piece of shallow musical tourism but rather a genuine attempt to explore and create. Contra will divide many but ultimately it will stand as a shining testament to the growth and rise of Vampire Weekend. Without a doubt the first great album of this decade.