Contra starts off with exactly what we’d expect from a Vampire Weekend trip to the beach. And it’s true, “Horchata” basically treads the same cracked pavement and sand that swept so many off their feet two years ago — lyrics rich with detailed imagery and full of Ivy League vocabulary (i.e. balaclava), calypso Afro-pop beats, some decorative bells and chimes. In short: it’s peppy, it’s poppy, it’s peculiar, it’s Vampire Weekend. However, deeper into the album, it becomes apparent that while Vampire Weekend are still playing to their strengths, they are indeed branching out lyrically and musically. The result is an impressive record full of pleasant surprises.
A few tracks on Contra offer us a glimpse at a softer, more serious side of Vampire Weekend, and the lyrical content on this record is more sentimental than those found on their first release. On Vampire Weekend, there were a lot of songs about New York landmarks and one about odd-shaped roofs. On Contra, things seem — as they always have with lead singer Ezra Koenig’s lyrics — very upper class, but here sentimental replaces superficial. Things are less “Oh, your collegiate grief has left you dowdy in sweatshirts / Absolute horror!” and more “You wanted good schools and friends with pools / but I just wanted you. I just wanted you.”
As far as softer goes, “Taxi Cab” and “I Think Ur a Contra” are essentially ballads. Vampire Weekend ballads? Yes, and strong ones. In them, Koenig sings “You were standing there so close to me like the future was supposed to be” and “I had a feeling once that you and I could tell each other everything for two months.” He’s not exactly trying to break your heart, but he is trying to appeal to your emotions a bit more than he has in the past. And somehow, with the simplicity of those lines and that piano in the background, he succeeds.
It’s not just the lyrics though — musically, this album has Vampire Weekend heading in a different direction too. Clearly they are expanding (or at least experimenting) with some different genres here, and throughout the album you’ll find remnants of ska, reggae, and synthesized pop. The album is actually quite electronic. At least one or two of these songs could have easily found a home on last year’s LP from Vampire Weekend keyboardist and Contra producer Rostam Batmanglij’s electronic R&B side-project, Discovery.
“Cousins,” by contrast, brings to the table spectacular, raw guitar riffs and probably the closest thing to punk rock we’ll ever get from these kids. “Diplomat’s Son” offers a sample of a track by British rapper M.I.A. While “California English” gives us a dose of Koenig on Autotune, don’t worry — it’s not like Kanye or T-Pain (not even a little bit) and it’s only the one track. Everywhere else we get that same crisp, clear Koenig delivery (except when his voice cracks ever so beautifully at the climax of “Run”).
Now, with all those ingredients you may be thinking Contra sounds like a sonic cluster-cuss, but Vampire Weekend successfully harmonize the numerous contrasting genres into something rich, catchy and extremely enjoyable. At the very worst, it might come across as eccentric, which is a perfect fit for Vampire Weekend — and something they’ve definitely pulled off before.
Trent Gurney is Rhombus’ newest music correspondent. This is his first article for the magazine.
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