Track list, for reference:
- White Sky
- California English
- Taxi Cab
- Giving Up the Gun
- Diplomat’s Son
- I Think Ur a Contra
Until the emergence of one Car Seat Headrest, I considered Vampire Weekend to be the best working guitar-based band since I started following music closely (circa 2010). Ezra is an insanely talented lyricist, Rostam’s arrangements and harmonies are endlessly interesting and beautiful, and the band as a whole seems to approach their image and aesthetic, as well as the crafting of their songs and albums, with both grounded cool-headedness and an expectation of excellence.
Of the band’s three studio LPs (2008’s Vampire Weekend, 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City), Contra is probably the one that gets the least attention. Vampire Weekend started it all, identified their erudite, preppy aesthetic, established their signature culturally aware yacht rock sound and contained longtime fan favorites like “Oxford Comma“, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and the ubiquitous “A-Punk“. Modern Vampires was seen as their ‘mature, adult’ album, won them a Grammy, killed the year-end list bonanza, etc. Contra served as the confirmation that the band were indeed ‘for real’, but I’d also argue that it’s the most conceptual and aesthetically cohesive record in the band’s discography, and also their best arranged and produced. An album about cultural opposites and juxtapositions, and how they fit into navigating reflections on a failed relationship, Contra has grown on me steadily over the years, and at this point I’d say its a dead-heat between it and their self-titled as my second favorite album of all time.
Easily one of the most well-known Vampire Weekend songs (owing in no small part its appearance in car commercials and perennial existence on winter holiday corporate playlists), its also the least interesting song on Contra, melding solid dueling guitar work with a chorus I unfortunately find slightly insufferable. The album’s signature arpeggiated synths or woahing harmonies are nowhere toe be found, and the lyrical content is less subtle, clever or referential than just about anywhere else on the album. The song’s true saving grace, however, is the bridge, which is far more inline with the tone of the rest of the album and features the wonderful typeface-referencing lyric “She’d never seen the word ‘bombs’ blown up to 96-point Futura”.
Opening the album’s second half, “Run” has been called “Springsteen-esque” for its depiction of a young couple running from their boring domestic lives, chasing love, freedom and hedonism. But I’ve always found the lyrics uncharacteristically straightforward for Ezra (“Every dollar counts / And every morning hurts / We mostly work to live / Until we live to work”), and although the couple’s description is romantic and even poetic, I feel like Ezra could have done the subject better justice with the more complex nuance he’s known for. I have never really cared for the Latin-tinged horns or the song’s generally triumphant tone, though I’ll concede that the presence of young wealth and aristocratic ennui plays well into the album’s aesthetic motifs.
8. “California English”
From here on forward, every song on this list is great. “California English” is one of Vampire Weekend’s most dizzying efforts, including a string section playing complex syncopated melodies in a round and an echoing delay on Ezra’s vocals. A song composed of one liners about California, there is no shortage of clever references (“Funny how that little college girl called language corrupt / Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club”) depicting the state’s inherent culture clashing. But despite the excellent harmonies on the chorus, the song seeks a relatively streamlined arrangement and doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the album’s standouts.
7. “Giving Up the Gun”
One of the band’s two best music videos is also home to their discography’s most unique and distinctive song. “Giving Up the Gun” features furious sixteenth note bass lines and the band’s danciest back beat, along with four choruses over nearly five minutes, creating the group’s closest thing to a synthpop crossover. The production is dense and very rhythm heavy, though still features tasty production notes like Rostam’s “Tokagawa-style” guitar riffs on the second verse, the beautiful harmonies sung a third over the melody on the chorus, the delicate glockenspiel twinkles throughout and the huge angel choir that builds the bridge from the ground up. The track’s inherent balladry and sincerity (“And though it’s been a long time, you’re right back where you started from / I see it in your eyes, and now you’re giving up the gun”) hearken back to 80s power ballads from Peter Gabirel and Phil Collins (if they were a little less corny and rocked a little harder), capturing a piece of 80s culture the entire album evokes in a way not seen on any other track.
6. “Taxi Cab”
Arguably the album’s most personal song (assuming Ezra is referencing his own past) and certainly its most skeletal, “Taxi Cab” is an unassuming but beautiful lament on a failed relationship with an old money debutante. The image of a girl who travels “Compound to compound” behind “Uniformed clothes outside the courtyard gates” thoroughly paints the subject without ever explicitly describing her, and the narrator’s recollection of a naive optimism envisioning their adulthood together (“Like the future was supposed to be / In the aisles of the grocery / And the blocks uptown”) makes all the more heartbreaking his inevitable acceptance of their fundamental differences (“I was questioning and looking back / You said ‘Baby we don’t speak of that’ / Like a real aristocrat”). Ezra’s genius as a lyricist is akin to Hemingway’s iceberg theory; he can give the minimum and most interesting possible description necessary to capture the range of meanings he’s attempting to translate. The song never wavers from its down-tempo beat, buffered by sawing violins and careful, polite piano and harpsichord arpeggios, and never explodes into a final chorus or coda the way “Hannah Hunt” and “Giving Up the Gun” do. Instead, like the relationship, it marches toward its end unceremoniously, not with a bang but with a whimper.
5. “I Think Ur a Contra”
The album’s other lowest-energy track and its closing number, “I Think Ur a Contra” uses the album’s titular phrase, previously employed to describe cultures on opposite coasts (“California English”), to capture the internal struggle within an individual. A successor to “Taxi Cab”, Ezra moves away from objective reflection into subjective bitterness – “I think you’re a contra / I think that you lie”, “You’re gonna watch out for yourself / And so will I”. The song’s angelic production and meandering guitar lines, creeping in from either channel, make it one of Rostam’s most impressive pieces, and the slow build of instruments and boat-swaying tom drums culminate the album in a similar way to how “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” did Vampire Weekend, but with a more beautiful melody and far fuller, lusher production work.
“Horchata” succeeds as an opener by laying out exactly what Contra intends to do; tinkle with synths and vibraphones, coat choruses with ‘woah’ harmonies, move between empty space and swirling crescendos through roller coaster string arrangements, make mention of pretentious cultural touchstones, and create an undeniably catchy song propped up by excellent melodies composed of equally subtle and interesting lyrics detailing the end of a relationship. Probably the most conceptually difficult to decipher track on the album, Ezra juxtaposes hot and cold seasons (“Winter’s cold is too much to handle / Pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals”) to capture the feelings before and after the breakup, contrasting pleasant memories where his ex’s “lips and teeth that asked how my day went” are now “shouting up through cracks in the pavement”. Ultimately, the narrator opines for even the simplest of times, mere “Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on”, the representation of the narrator’s “Nosalgia for garbage” on “Taxi Cab”. But beyond the depth of its lyrics, “Horchata” is a masterpiece of arrangement, kicking the shit out of every piece of production on Vampire Weekend right from the get-go.
The album’s true banger, the band’s set-opener, and Ezra’s most poignant dismissal of the band’s haters, “Cousins” is a whirlwind of self-reference and chaotic guitar lines. The opening lyric (“You found a sweater on the ocean floor”) both references two Vampire Weekend tracks (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “A-Punk”) and represents Ezra’s aesthetic vision for the band; taking discarded prep school aesthetic and turning it into a unique and kick-ass personal brand. Every line on the song is ripe with double entendre, and led by Chris Thompson’s machine gun snares and Rostam’s ridiculous vibrato picked descending guitar lines, “Cousins” structure and performances help make it the band’s best rock song.
2. “White Sky”
One of the album’s simplest arrangements, merely an arpeggiated four chord synth progression, a clapping drum beat and bouncing bass line, Ezra’s best description of New York moves from blissful to euphoric with the grace and ease of settling into a wonderful ecstasy high (“It all comes at once”). Cultural juxtaposition, perhaps the album’s most central theme, abounds, between the “Ancient business” and “Modern piece of glass work” to the “Horses racing taxis”, painting a captivating portrait of New York, as does the visual of “A pair of mirrors that are facing one another” reflecting “A thousand little Julias” and the skyward gaze of the narrator and his girl as they fantasize about living among the wealthy in the city’s high rises – “Looks up at the buildings, imagine who might live there / Imagining your Wolford’s in a ball upon the sink there”. The song’s structure builds a growing sense of elation to climax, beginning with two verses that catapult into the first chorus, then to an instrumental, another verse into another chorus, and then directly into the last verse before the biggest and most satisfying chorus, evoking the center of a great drug trip or a toe-curling orgasm.
1. “Diplomat’s Son”
Forever standing as the best combination of Ezra and Rostam’s many talents, the album’s overarching climax, sequenced pen-ultimately after the rollicking back side run of “Run”, “Cousins” and “Giving Up the Gun”, tells the story of a homoerotic tryst between an adventurous protagonist and his old money classmate. Featuring lyrics from both members, sexual tension builds (“With my car keys hidden in the kitchen / I could sleep wherever I lay my head”) before Rostam takes a rare lead vocal turn on the gorgeous half tempo reggae bridge, where he sings as the diplomat’s son (“I know you’ll say ‘I’m not doing it right’ / But this is how I want it”) before we’re shot back into the narrator’s recollection (“That night I smoked a joint with my best friend / We found ourselves in bed / When I woke up he was gone”). There are so many wonderful components of this song; the M.I.A. vocal sample that serves as a backbeat, the faux-African vocals, the woozy, lilting strings, the half-tempo bridges, the lyrical imagery of the diplomat’s son’s house. But it stands as one of Vampire Weekend’s all time greatest songs and their creative pinnacle on Contra because of how effortlessly the songwriters blend a meaningful and carefully paced story within the contours of the song’s production backflips. The outro scene of the narrator contrasting the warm, drugged up night he spent with the diplomat’s son with a cold, windy riverside is a picturesque ending with a lasting and ambiguous final image – “In the dark when the wind comes racing off the river / There’s a car all black with diplomatic plates”.