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Vampire Weekend’s Latest Album Is Ezra Koenig’s Guide for the Perplexed

On ‘Modern Vampires of the City,’ the frontman wrestles with Jewish questions, calling to mind a personal Kol Nidre

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Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. (Margarita Korol)
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Three years ago I was seeking tickets for one of three sold-out Vampire Weekend concerts at Radio City Music Hall. The tickets were a kind of early Sweet Sixteen gift for my youngest daughter. I was looking for three good seats—for Jackie, her girlfriend, and myself—and I suspect that among the three of us, I was the most dedicated fan.

Having worked as a pop music critic for 40 years, I knew someone to call for the favor of buying “house” seats without going the scalper route. But there was an awkward aspect to the request. I could only use tickets for Sept. 15 or 16. The third show, Sept. 17, was erev Yom Kippur, and the only song in my heart that night would be “Kol Nidre.”

But I was curious how Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend’s singer, guitarist, and primary lyricist, felt about performing on the holiest night of the Jewish year. So, I asked his mother, Bobby Bass. I had known Bass, a New Jersey psychotherapist, since we attended Bard College together in the late 1960s; in the early 1970s, we lived on the same street in Chelsea at a time when one could rent a Manhattan apartment for under $200 a month.

She told me that Ezra had gone to Hebrew school and been bar mitzvahed in their suburban, predominantly gentile New Jersey town. He decided that organized religion was not for him. That was his choice. Koenig played that Yom Kippur show at Radio City on Sept. 17, 2010, and I respect that choice.

But I do wonder if Koenig even had second thoughts about that Yom Kippur show. Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, was released this May. Like its 2010 predecessor, Contra, it made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. The band has been playing the North American and European festival circuit during the summer and headlined the Ottawa Folk Festival on Rosh Hashanah and the Boston Calling Festival last weekend. It begins its North American arena tour Sept. 19 in Philadelphia and will play the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Sept. 20.

I would like to think I would not perform on Yom Kippur, but if I were the only Jew in the band, as Koenig may be, I would. (His songwriting partner in Vampire Weekend, Rosham Batmanglij, is a non-Jewish first-generation Persian-American, and though Koenig and Batmanglij are apparently close collaborators, the credits of Modern Vampires of the City make a point of identifying Koenig as the lyricist.) If the tour was booked a year ahead, as they often are, and the conflict was inadvertent, the tickets already sold, I’d probably play. If God is not a bush-league pinch-hitter to get us out of any jam we’re in, neither can someone replace the band’s nominal leader if he decides not to play, to break a promise made to fans, to his band mates, and to his music.

***

Intentionally or not, Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, written and sung by Koenig, appear to wrestle with questions of Jewish identity, of spiritual seeking and spiritual torment, of being Jewish in America and our relationship and responsibilities to Israel. At first I thought this might be an overzealous interpretation. When Modern Vampires of the City came out, I was accelerating my efforts to connect my higher-power-oriented spirituality with the powerful but transient Jewish connection with which I was seized in my first year of Hebrew school, inspired by a teacher who stressed piety and sacrifice, with tales of Rabbi Akiva and the other Jewish martyrs. The connection became diluted, but it never entirely disappeared. But by the time of my bar mitzvah in 1962, my enthusiasm for Torah had gone into remission. My fantasy at 13 was to replace my Haftorah reading with a spontaneous, combustible rendition of the Isley Brothers’ soul gospel hit “Shout!” while dancing splits on the bima.

Today, much of Modern Vampires of the City strikes me as deeply meaningful from a Jewish perspective. “Ya Hey” confronts God directly, as the chorus chants what sounds like “Yahweh,” while Koenig sings: “Through the fire and through the flames, you won’t even say your name/ Only I am what I am.” The image of fire—a symbol of the Torah—is repeated in many songs.

In “Unbelievers,” Koenig sings, “We know the fire awaits unbelievers,” he sings, and asks: “I’m not excited, but should I be? Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” One thinks of the popular evangelical Christian Left Behind fiction series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The series about the Rapture, and the return of Jesus, has been vetted by the Anti-Defamation League, which notes “the violent death of nonbelievers,” as it describes “a world in which Jews are not as fully human as Christians—unless they become Christians.”

There are songs featuring visitations from a nameless stranger with spiritual power. In “Hannah Hunt,” “a man of faith said hidden eyes/ Could see what I was thinking. But I just smiled and told him that was only true of Hannah,” Koenig sings. Maybe “hunt” isn’t a proper noun, the girl’s last name. Suppose it’s a verb? Hannah, in the Bible, hunts for relief from depression and barrenness, and in so doing reaches Hashem with silent prayer: the first Amidah. In the song, the stranger doesn’t say a person with hidden eyes; he says simply, “hidden eyes could see.” God has hidden eyes; he heard what Hannah was thinking. Hannah’s story, of course, is the Rosh Hashanah Haftorah portion.

In “Hudson,” a meditation on explorer Henry Hudson’s death 400 years ago and modern Manhattan real estate, there is another spectral visitor, who tells a wonderful apocalyptic joke. “A stranger walked in through the door/ Said ‘all apartments are prewar.’/ We laughed and asked him for his name/ He stayed until the end.” He never gives his name; the end of what is never stated. Perhaps it’s about eternity, as in Bob Dylan’s “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” and that most moral of Dylan’s song’s warning: “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.”

This spirituality was not evident on Vampire Weekend’s 2007 self-titled debut album, heavily influenced by Paul Simon’s Graceland, the 1986 album suffused with South African musicians and their local styles. There was playful erudition. I didn’t mind the frisson of pretension of “Oxford Comma”—as a former copy editor, how could one not kvell?—or “Mansard Roof,” which forced me to the dictionary to see what a mansard roof was. On Contra, there is a similarly oblique song called “Horchata,” about a Mexican beverage, so one of the rhymes—“You’d remember drinkin’ horchata/ You’d still enjoy it with your foot on Masada”—went right past me at the time. Now it resonates as an indication that Jewish history—especially tragic Jewish history—might become a key weapon in Koenig’s literary arsenal.

After the Contra tour, Koenig traveled in Israel, and Modern Vampires of the City has songs that can be heard to be ponderings on the Jewish state, both political and philosophical. But the search for a reason to believe in a Jewish life is apparent in a cluster of songs, on what would be the entire second side of a vinyl album, songs 7 to 12, which features songs inside of songs, musical Russian dolls hidden inside sequences of musical and lyrical ideas.

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Vampire Weekend’s Latest Album Is Ezra Koenig’s Guide for the Perplexed

On ‘Modern Vampires of the City,’ the frontman wrestles with Jewish questions, calling to mind a personal Kol Nidre