Beandon’s Musical Corner: ‘Only God Was Above Us’ by Vampire Weekend

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Welcome to a new and improved Beandon’s Musical Corner, the only place on campus for in-depth, exhaustive reviews of the latest releases in rock, jazz, experimental… and pretty much everything else. Brandon Rupp (also known by his mononymous musical title “Beandon,” under which he releases music and DJs as KZSU’s Student Music Director) explores a new title and gives unfiltered feedback, regardless of the genre. Feel free to send him music; he’d love to take a look!

As I left my relaxing spring break in New York and flew across the Atlantic to Oxford University, I realized the release of Vampire Weekend’s latest album could not have come at a better time in my life. Packing cashmere sweaters, wool turtlenecks and my favorite pair of Chelsea boots, I couldn’t help but think of the band’s preppy aesthetic, which had helped breathe new life into indie music in the 2000s. 

Columbia University’s own Vampire Weekend is widely known by professional music critics (and people like me, who merely claim to be) as the band that never misses: just look at their nearly universally praised catalog of four, err, three modern classics. 

For the old-heads, there’s the self-titled album: “A-Punk” (2008) is a modern indie classic, and the track “Oxford Comma” is so tongue-in-cheek that fellow Ivy Leaguers cannot help but golf clap. Their dark horse is the sophomore record “Contra” (2010), which features many of their outright best songs (“I Think Ur A Contra” especially). Then there’s my favorite: “Modern Vampires of the City” (2013) is a contender for the best album of the 2010s for its bouncy, cartoonish and unbounded production. 

With “Father of the Bride” (2019), the band started to sound less like Paul Simon and more like Jerry Garcia. It is widely accepted to be a little less good than the first three, but I still love it.

With the announcement of their latest studio album “Only God Was Above Us” (OGWAU), the conversation immediately centered around what the band would do to expand their scope. Part of their charm came from the nuances of their Ivy League collegiate experience: their songs tackled “the tenuous connection between preppiness and colonialism” — think about the “bleeding madras” in “M79”. They may have been boat-shoe-wearing Columbia students, but they were there on scholarships (and weren’t nepo-baby WASPs). 

But now the band members are entering their fortieth years on this planet and college is (hopefully) a distant memory. Thus, their answer to Album #5 is to ask larger questions. As lead singer Ezra Koenig puts it, “these big questions — life and faith and death — they went from being primarily an intellectual concern, which is how I felt in my 20s, to something more real… you watch things come and you watch things go. I think all of those things naturally…point you in a slightly different direction.” In other words, time and tide wait for no indie darlings.

Now it’s time for the blurb they should put on the vinyl sticker: “Only God Was Above Us” is likely the best album to be released thus far in the 2020s. Their sense of urgency has led to an album that feels much more important and intelligent than their prior work.

Clever, literary lyric sheets courtesy of Koenig have always helped to round out the band’s oft-worldbeat chamber pop. But the lyrics on OGWAU are startlingly good: “Classical” begins with the searing “In times of war, the educated class knew what to do / In times of peace, their pupils couldn’t meet your baby blues.” The opening track, “Ice Cream Piano,” features a line that made me lean forward and enter prime listening mode: “We’re all the sons and daughters of vampires who drained the old world’s necks.” 

You just have to trust me here — for English majors like myself, this is the good stuff right in the main vein.

“Classical” and “Ice Cream Piano” are both massive, bombastic tracks filled with creative production, rapid drum fills, bouncy basswork and Koenig’s trademark yelpy melodies. But the quieter moments on the album might be even more impactful: the beautiful “Pravda” uses a dreamy soundscape and layered metaphors to explore the relationship between the United States and Russia. 

The eight-minute, slow-burning closer “Hope” is the band’s most restrained and mature song to date. More broadly, it’s an excuse for the band to apply their recently acquired penchant for jam band dynamics to a deeply impactful composition.

On the topic of dynamics, this is easily one of the best produced, mixed and mastered albums I have ever heard. The sonic profile of OGWAU is at once expansive and experimental without becoming cluttered or sacrificing any of the instruments in the mix. Koenig’s twinkling piano arpeggios are punchier than ever, even amid an entire church choir or bursts of guitar noise. In fact, the album’s noisier approach leads to many unique experiments in harsh edits and purposeful clipping, which work surprisingly well for the band. Tracks like “The Surfer” charts new ground for Vampire Weekend with a gorgeous ambient soundscape backed only with lo-fi drums.

Unlike the somewhat overstuffed double album “Father of the Bride,” OGWAU only features 10 tracks, leading to a brisk 45-minute affair. Truth be told, I have listened to the record at least fifty times as I’ve strolled through the streets of New York and Oxford. As a true marker of a perfect album, I have a new favorite track each time I listen to it. Some days it’ll be the jazz-freakout “Connect” in large part for its upright bass work, while other times I replay the catchy noise-rock of “Gen-X Cops” a half-dozen times.

As a potential spoiler for my end-of-year list, I am not sure if an album could come out this year that tops this one. It is great in a way that, say, a “Rumours” or “Abbey Road” is great: you wonder how the world existed before you first heard the album, yet it feels like you have been listening to it since the day you were born. Timely yet timeless.

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