It's tempting to want to talk about 'Father of the Bride' in terms of The Beatles' 'White Album'. Hell, you could easily give a song to song comparison in terms of tone and placement in each artists' careers ('This Life' is Vampire Weekend's 'Revolution 1'), but the main talking point is how both are double albums that take place decently far into each band's careers. Even Ezra Koenig himself has pointed out the comparison (along with mentioning Bruce Springsteen's 'The River', saying that he prefers the general cohesion of that). While Vampire Weekend's latest does have the sprawl of 'The White Album' (for reference: a near perfect album), it's also a tighter record. 'The White Album' is great because of its bloat, as not every song is good, but every single one works on the record. 'Father of the Bride' is great because each song on the 18 track record is anywhere from damn good to perfect.
And yet, the original news that 'Father of the Bride' was a double album was troubling. Coming off of one of the greatest albums of all time with 'Modern Vampires of the City', Vampire Weekend lost a member, waited six years, lead singer Ezra Koenig made an anime, and then release six (SIX!) singles off of a record shrouded in mystery. If that doesn't sound like a recipe for disaster, I'm not really sure what is. At the same time, 'Father of the Bride' is a joyous record, connected by short snippets of songs and an overall folksy and rootsy sound, making not the best record of the year, but an excellent record nonetheless.
It all starts with 'Harmony Hall'. Well, not literally, the record starts on 'Hold You Now', but the first song we heard from Vampire Weekend in six years was the aforementioned classic rock explosion of joy, laced with tight and sharp lyricism and the best chorus of the year. On first listen, 'Harmony Hall' may seem like the obvious centerpiece of this ambitious, messy double record (no wonder it was the lead single), but the heart of the record feels like the closer 'Jerusalem, Berlin, New York', which combines a beautiful piano melody with SOPHIE-esque synth-bass flutters. For a song about the creation of the Israeli state, it's vague and lovely in it's prose, which perfectly punctuates an album of upbeat music which is underlaid with dark lyricism.
Even with that dark lyricism, 'Father of the Bride' seems based in the idea of hope and universality. 'Big Blue' was one of the earlier singles released from this record, but it didn't get enough praise for being a pleasantly existential exploration of the crushing smallness one can feel in the world. "You're a small part of this world…", and Koenig sings with this truth already internalized. The spirit of the record is unmistakably jubilant, announcing this folksy sound of happiness on songs like 'Bambina', which opens with an acoustic guitar lick and a kick drum before exploding into a fully formed pop rock track which feels vaguely surf rock-y. Maybe the best example of this is the infectious track 'Stranger' which opens with the hook that talks about how things have never been stranger, and while Paul Simon has been the unmistakable influence for Vampire Weekend's first three records, songs like 'Stranger' feel more indebted to Van Morrison than anyone. Atop of that, the track 'This Life', an upbeat and hopeful song that decays into a breakup anthem in the pre-chorus practically borrows its groove from Morrison's 'Brown Eyed Girl'. Lyrically, 'This Life' is a bit of a bait-and-switch, as the verse contains lines like "We're surviving, we're living, I'm stronger", while the chorus ends on the line "Am I good for nothing?", representing that push-pull of darkness and light found on this record.
We come to Vampire Weekend for the way that they beautifully juxtaposed styles that don't lend themselves to each other atop of one another, creating something wholly unique, and 'Father of the Bride' delivers this in spades. Take the quiet but infectious track 'How Long?' where we get snaps and claps in the percussion, light guitars, and a strong groove, which slowly give away to an orchestral string groove (particularly upright bass), which is backed somehow by arena rock snare drums stolen from Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA'. Nothing about that song should work, but it's one of the most subtle earworms on the record. 'Rich Man' does a similar thing with a sample of guitar work by S. E. Rogie underlaid by expansive strings. A light kick drum thumps in the background, while a shaker anchors the groove - none of these songs make sense in construction, but hearing is believing.
Surprisingly, the most striking songs on 'Father of the Bride' are the downbeat ones. Somehow the tone of the depressing breakup songs, meditations on Israel, and the song where Ezra talks about cheating on both ends are the best. Even a bouncy and huge track like 'Harmony Hall' has a chorus that gestures at the brokenness of structural systems ("Wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified"), a topic that's been on everybody's mind for a little while. The greatest song on 'Father of the Bride' is the genuinely gloomy one though, a heartbreaking track called 'Unbearably White'. I groaned when I saw the title too, but with the groove-oriented percussion and a light guitar lick that holds the track down, it's depressing when Ezra sings "Baby I love you, but that's not enough". Little details like how the strings rise on the track's peak, or the looping bass groove on chorus bring the song to perfection.
It's going to be incredibly challenging to orient Father of the Bride. It's a mess, overlong, sometimes it doesn't always work (rarely, but the second Steve Lancy track 'Flower Moon' does nothing for me), but it's beautiful in its shaggy glory. It's unmissable at 18 tracks, and it's equally a departure for Vampire Weekend. The conciseness of previous member Rostam is gone, but in comes the ethos of Ezra Koenig. If there's one thing this record is, it's unmistakably Ezra Koenig. That's all I could ever ask of Vampire Weekend.
Favorite Tracks: Jerusalem, New York, Berlin, Harmony Hall, Unbearably White, Stranger; Bambina
Least Favorite Tracks: Flower Moon (feat. Steve Lacy)
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