Vampire Weekend blends genres with ‘Only God Was Above Us’

Vampire Weekend blends genres with ‘Only God Was Above Us’

Earlier this month on April 5, 2024, Vampire Weekend released their fifth studio album Only God Was Above Us. This new album effortlessly blends different musical influences and genres such as punk and jazz with the classic Vampire Weekend sound that we all know and love. The tight ten-track album certainly displays a departure in length from the winding 18-track album that came previously, Father of The Bride. Still, despite its shorter runtime, there is certainly no lack of talent or good tunes, and Only God Was Above Us stands as another successful release in Vampire Weekend’s deep arsenal of music. 

Right off the bat, some fans may notice something missing from the album’s cover.

Unlike the last four albums, there is no iconic ‘VAMPIRE WEEKEND‘ in bolded, capital letters on the front. While seemingly an interesting choice to abandon the consistent style after nearly twenty years, one can argue that it allows viewers to focus more clearly on the photograph at hand. The cover, a picture taken by Steven Siegel in 1988, depicts a passenger in a graffiti-splattered subway car of 1980s Manhattan reading The New York Daily News. The news story in question? The Aloha Airlines Flight 243 incident, in which the plane’s roof was torn off mid flight due to structural failures. Afterwards, a surviving passenger from the aircraft was quoted saying that they looked up mid-disaster to find that “only god was above us”. 

The grittiness of the photograph and the heavy subject matter of being face to face with one’s mortality are thematically mirrored throughout the lyrics on the album, a clear testament to the intelligence and intention that frontman and lyricist, Ezra Koenig, carries with him while composing songs. After all, we have to remember that Koenig did meet his fellow bandmate, drummer Chris Tomson, at Columbia University. Some listeners may interpret the album’s lyrics as veering towards pretentiousness, perhaps reflecting these intellectual roots. 

Despite the album cover’s origins and implications, Only God Was Above Us is not a dreary or heavy sounding album overall, a sentiment echoed by Koenig himself in an article with The New York Times ahead of the project’s release. It’s a moodier departure compared to Father of the Bride, mirroring the thematic depth of Modern Vampires of the City most closely. Still, Only God Was Above Us contains moments of that chirping, bright, summer-in-New England sound that is prevalent in all of Vampire Weekend’s music. This tone, composed of indie and afro-pop influences, is an integral part of the fabric of the band itself. 

For tried and true Vampire Weekend fans, listening through Only God Was Above Us feels like an easter egg hunt of familiar musical motifs. It’s so exciting to be able to pick out specific guitar parts, drum lines, and vocal themes that were present on tracks and albums past. To name a few of the standouts (as a mega Vampire Weekend nerd myself): 

  1. The strings section in “Ice Cream Piano” mirrors the strings in the outro of “Diplomat’s Son” off of Contra. 
  2. The drum beat that follows the chorus of “Connect” contains massive similarities to the drums found in “Campus” off of Vampire Weekend. 
  3. If there’s one thing about Vampire Weekend, they love the piano. “Capricorn” contains a piano part that is nearly identical to the piano melody on “Step” off of Modern Vampires Of The City. 
  4. The last line of “Gen-X Cops” and the vocal distortions Koenig employs are very similar to the vocal distortions in the last line of “Hudson” off of Modern Vampires of the City

Approaching nearly two decades as a band, it’s as if Vampire Weekend is rewarding its longest standing fans through inclusions like these.

It’s like an exclusive club, solely for fans of Vampire Weekend–the longer you’re in it, the more you understand, and the more rewarding it is to experience it. 

Perhaps the most interesting and thematically telling tracks from Only God Was Above Us are found consecutively in the middle of the album, starting with “Connect”. The song features a wild, twisting piano line layered between a syncopated drum line and a prominent, dancing bass melody. The song is full of distorted vocal lines and a crazy piano solo, with fingers dancing on the keys, sometimes missing the “right” notes but still sounding perfectly in place. It might be the strangest song that the band has released to date, in terms of song structure, instruments, and effects used. (Pro tip: listen to this one with headphones on for some great spatial audio effects).

Following “Connect”, “’Prep-School Gangsters” revisits Vampire Weekend’s quintessential indie rock sound, offering a soothing contrast. The track is decisively easy to listen to, evoking images of laying out on a sunny porch in a hammock while reading a book and sipping on iced tea. Koenig flexes his impressive vocal range throughout the song, often harmonizing with himself an entire octave higher. Arguably the catchiest and most melodic guitar line in the entire album, it’s hard not to feel like “Prep-School Gangsters” will become your new song of the summer.  

Finally, we reach “The Surfer”: a track supremely demonstrative of the genre-bending throughout ‘Only God Was Above Us’.

A stark departure from the album’s sound thus far, the track features a jazzy piano and horn section, layered over chilled, syncopated drum beats. In the verses, Koenig sounds like he is in daze– perhaps half awake, half asleep, or as if he is existing completely in a dream. Interestingly enough, the jangled guitar line present in the chorus and bridge calls to mind sounds and themes from Salad Days by Mac Demarco, particularly tracks like “Blue Boy”. This is the perfect example of how Vampire Weekend is able to effortlessly blend the emblematic sounds of the indie rock genre with elements and instruments from genres that the band members admire, such as jazz and punk. 

For a band that is relatively reclusive, often wiping their entire social media profile in between releases and eras, Vampire Weekend has stayed very active following the release of Only God Was Above Us. Fans can tune in for the band’s Vampire Campfire episodes, a new podcast hosted by Koenig, Tomson, and bassist Chris Baio. What’s more– Vampire Weekend recently hit the desert as a surprise act at Coachella’s first weekend, cleverly branded as “Vampire Weekend One”. The boys played “Classical” and “Gen X Cops” from the new album, interspersing other must-play tracks like “A-Punk” and “Cousins” throughout the set. They even brought Paris Hilton out, alongside an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Then, they all played cornhole on stage (yes, really).

Desert Sun // Lauren Randolph

Jealous? No need to be– Vampire Weekend is embarking on a huge US/EU tour, extending through the end of 2024. If you want to experience Only God Was Above Us in concert (and maybe talk your way into playing cornhole on stage with the band), be sure to visit their band’s website for tickets. With its rich tapestry of sounds, poignant themes, and musical callbacks, Only God Was Above Us reinforces Vampire Weekend’s position as icons in modern indie pop music, resonating with fans and newcomers alike.

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Disclaimer: All views presented in this album review are those of the reviewer and not necessarily those of Top Shelf Music.

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