Few bands in recent memory have inspired the breathless praise or visceral vitriol of Vampire Weekend.
When the band’s self-titled debut dropped in 2008, some saw pristine hooks, literate lyrics and a descendant of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Detractors saw privileged Ivy League prissiness, boat shoes and pastel sweaters and, well, a descendant of Paul Simon’s Graceland.
With follow-up s set for release Tuesday, the band — seemingly still stung by the backlash they endured — isn’t expecting to convert any of their critics.
“There are people who aren’t going to give the second album a chance at all,” lead singer Ezra Koenig told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.
“I think there are even people who made such fundamentally negative statements about our band, that they would need to have like a religious experience to give the second album a chance.”
That would be a shame, because Contra shows significant growth over the band’s impressive debut.
Mostly recorded at the group’s small studio in New York, Contra sounds familiar but brainier, more intricate and more complex than the first album.
It’s also more direct, which Koenig says was a goal after he grew frustrated with being misunderstood.
You see, those tales of strolls through the Columbia campus, rolls in the hay on Benetton linen and summers frittered away in Cape Cod were meant with a satirical bite that was sometimes lost in translation.
“When your lyrics have the tiniest hints of irony or sarcasm or critical thinking, people are going to have such different ideas of what the songs are about,” Koenig said.
“Some people write songs where it’s always kind of obvious that it’s from their point of view. Whereas I think we have songs that are kind of about other characters or maybe told from the point of view of somebody who’s the opposite of you. That always kind of confuses things.
“I feel like the first album was very open to misinterpretation. And I hope that this one is more direct in that sense.”
Where the band’s debut occasionally felt clinical, distant, or too-polished by a veneer of cleverness, the tunes on “Contra” have at a bit more soul.
In fact, the sprightly Taxi Cab even marks the band’s first ballad, though Koenig couldn’t resist adding other layers of meaning to the delicate tune.
“I would hope that none of our songs are ever just reducible to plain, old-fashioned love songs, silly love songs,” he said.
“On one level, that song is one of our first true ballads, I would say. And in that sense, it’s very different for us. I think I’m singing very differently than I sang on other songs, but to me it sounds just as natural to sing a little lower and quieter. And I would also hope that just like we don’t want the lyrics to be reduced to Hallmark sentimentality, we would also like that the music can’t just be reduced to ballad territory.”
That’s not much of a risk anywhere on the record. The band’s fascination with African, South American and Caribbean percussion (do not say “world music,” a term Koenig says is “reductive and bizarre”) remains, newly augmented by electronic textures and gorgeous vocal harmonies.
What Contra trades in immediacy, it makes up in variety, as elements of dancehall, ska, reggae and punk (sort of) filter through.
Obviously, the band aimed high though, Koenig hopes, not too high.
“There are a lot of records that are just ambitious for the sake of being ambitious,” Koenig said.
“So we’d like to think that anything that we try that is experimental or is different from the first album, we’re only doing it to serve the song. So hopefully that balances everything out.”
Of course, as the men in Vampire Weekend seethe against their critics, it’s worth pointing out that they have more enthusiastic fans.
Their first record, dogged though it was by a small but vociferous Internet backlash, was actually received extremely well — it nabbed an average review score of 82 in the press, according to online review aggregator Metacritic.
And during a recent concert at Toronto’s venerable but small (relative to the venues Vampire Weekend usually plays) Horseshoe Tavern, the band had a sold-out crowd hanging on their every word, chanting lyrics back to them and warmly receiving as-yet-unheard material from “Contra.”
“We’re kind of prepared for anything,” Koenig said.
“There are people who read many articles about us before they heard our music and already knew that they hated us. If we had listened to that, we couldn’t have done anything.”
Added drummer Chris Tomson: “I think in some ways, you probably feel good if your music creates a strong reaction. There’s a lot of bands that put out albums that fit into a general kind of genre. And those bands probably elicit more of a ’meh’ response.
“You feel like you’re doing something right if people either positively or negatively really react.”