The spirit of YOLO dominated pop culture last year, kicking off with Drake’s late 2011 hit “The Motto” — “You only live once, that’s the motto, n—-a, YOLO” — and spiraling off into thousands of hashtagged tweets, celebrity tattoos, novelty T-shirts, memes, and finally, a Lonely Island parody that pushed the philosophy to a paranoid survivalist extreme. Not everyone who adopted the YOLO philosophy used the slogan. Two of the best pop hits of the back end of 2012, Ke$ha’s “Die Young” and One Direction’s “Live While We’re Young,” are lighthearted dance tunes that — perhaps somewhat unintentionally — cut straight to the core of what made the slogan so resonant: a gnawing fear that the future is either awful or nonexistent, and so every moment of youth must be savored and lived to its fullest.
Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig was definitely paying attention to all of this. A few of the best tweets from his consistently funny and clever Twitter account last year were jokes about YOLO:
Koenig is more concerned with the dark side of YOLO on his band’s excellent third album, Modern Vampires of the City. More than half of the songs are about young people who hyperbolically conflate adulthood with death, or at least with permanently surrendering a sense of possibility and license for recklessness. Koenig’s characters sense doors closing behind them at every turn, and feel the weight of decisions they might have not considered to be particularly important even just a few years ago. For his protagonists, YOLO isn’t a declaration of freedom; it’s a nagging pressure to make the most of their finite youth.
This is a grim theme, but Modern Vampires does not sound or feel particularly dark or depressed. Vampire Weekend’s music is bright, tidy, upbeat, and graceful. And though Koenig’s characters are stressed and confused, his lyrics and vocal delivery are consistently lucid. He’s singing from a step or two removed from the most painful feelings, and offering some perspective on common twentysomething anxieties. Even when he’s making a joke at the expense of a self-conscious speed demon in a Saab on the single “Diane Young,” Koenig comes across as empathetic and devoid of condescension.
“Obvious Bicycle,” the gorgeously harmonized opening song, offers sympathy to an unemployed friend stuck in a sad limbo between a seemingly wasted youth and an adult life just beyond his reach. He witnesses the birth of a romance in a fleeting moment at a falafel joint in Manhattan on “Finger Back,” and the slow death of another over the course of a cross-country road trip in “Hannah Hunt,” and connects with the poignancy of both moments.
The emotional core of Modern Vampires of the City is “Don’t Lie,” a ballad at the center of the record. It’s a love song, really, but the urgency of the romance is amped up by morbidity — “there’s a headstone right in front of you, and everyone I know.” The feelings are strong, but Koenig’s character is caught up in the anxious rush to find more experiences and a fear of aging too soon. In the song’s most dramatic moment, Koenig sings, “I want to know, does it bother you? / The low click of a ticking clock,” and just then, it feels as though the only possible answer is YES. “Don’t Lie” zeroes in on an unbearable pressure to get the best possible experience out of life, but that’s a subjective thing. You only live once, sure, but you can’t live every life. Koenig doesn’t judge his characters, but it’s obvious enough that most of them are letting this anxiety sabotage their lives. They ruin good things by fixating on the next step, or get so disappointed in their present that they end up wasting the youth they’re so keen on preserving.
There’s a lot of religion on Modern Vampires too, but it’s not much of an escape from this ever-present anxiety. God and religion become another source of stress and societal pressure — “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You” fixate on the judgment of a wrathful God, while “Unbelievers” reckons with feeling like an outsider once you’ve rejected faith. “Ya Hey,” the most lyrically and musically bold track on the album, essentially shrugs off the God of the Old Testament in a chorus of pitch-shifted vocals: “You won’t even say your name / Only that ‘I am that I am’ / Who could ever live that way?” Despite this apparent lack of faith, these are the songs on the album that seem most confident and at ease. Maybe it’s because this is where Koenig’s characters make a stand; it’s probably more to do with them looking outside of themselves rather than retreating inward.
Koenig drops his neutral, observational style on the final verse of “Step,” a gorgeous mid-tempo cut that comes early in the album’s sequence. “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth,” he sings, softly critiquing the mentality behind YOLO, and well, most of contemporary culture. Taken out of context, it would seem scolding, but it’s pretty obvious that he understands the ways the pressure of vanity can obscure the value of maturity. A few lines later, he concludes the verse with a reassuring sentiment that is essentially the core message of the album, equally applicable to the person addressed, and Vampire Weekend’s mostly millennial audience: “Everyone’s dying, but girl — you’re not old yet.”