Intelligence is Bliss: Vampire Weekend and the Beatles’ Rubber Soul

By Daniel Garrett

Vampire Weekend

(featuring “Mansard Roof” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”)

Produced by Rostam Batmanglij

XL Recordings, 2008

The Beatles, Rubber Soul

Produced by George Martin

EMI, 1965

(for Paul Zakrzewski, Rebecca Terner, Keith Hudson and Alfredo Garcia)

I liked the band Vampire Weekend before I heard them, the kind of thing one is not supposed to admit if one has pretensions to seriousness (I hope, rather, to actually be serious): I liked the idea of a group of young men with a collegiate sensibility, who themselves learned and loved African music. I liked the idea of a group of young men who are not advocating aggression and resentment, or confined to despair and ignorance, but who assumed that joy and culture are important and could be shared, whether the culture was born in America or Africa or elsewhere. In Sarah Rodman’s February 3, 2008 Boston Globe article on the band Vampire Weekend, its lead singer and lyricist Ezra Koenig said, “I had a huge ska phase, and then I had a big punk phase and then rap, and in different ways all those musics could be tied to race or nationality or certainly backgrounds that I don’t have. But in some ways, in all of those musics there’s examples of people borrowing from each other and being experimental and also not being heavy-handed about it.” The article quotes some of the band’s admirers—David Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads, and Albert Mazibuko of the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Byrne describes Vampire Weekend’s music as inclusive, welcoming a lot of elements, and Mazibuko says Vampire Weekend’s music celebrates African music and the purpose of music is to share it with other people. That is not very different from the kinds of questions and answers the Beatles and Rolling Stones generated decades ago: the Beatles liked the work of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, and the Rolling Stones were fond of those men as well as blues musicians such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. The Beatles, like the Stones, took the music they liked, added to it, interpreted it, and made it something their own. Vampire Weekend—Rostam Batmanglij, who plays organ, harpsichord, guitar, drum, and sings; Chris Baio, bassist; and Christopher Tomson, drummer and guitarist, with Ezra Koenig, who plays guitar, piano, and hand drum—are in that tradition of popular music, which shares aspects of all creativity: taking something, adding it to something else, and making something new. Whatever enthusiasm and despair, confidence and insecurity, the members of Vampire Weekend have seen in their young lives might be intuited in the observation and wit, the croon and rhythm, of their songs. It is amusing, and pleasing, to hear echoes of Africa in work that speaks of settings—cosmopolitan, comfortable—that seem very different.

“I see a mansard roof through the trees, I see a salty message written in the eaves” are the first lines of the first song, “Mansard Roof,” and most of the song’s fleeting, impressionistic lines imply distant observation, mundane life, ruin or waste as much as wealth and power, and movement, while the music has a short, dense beat and swirling melody, and the singer’s voice is light and yearning. “It’s the kind of sunny sound you’d hear in old west-African pop. Same goes for Ezra Koenig’s guitar, which never takes up too much space: it’s that clean, natural tone you’d get on a record from Senegal or South Africa,” wrote Nitsuh Abebe in his January 28, 2008 PitchforkMedia review. Nitsuh Abebe, citing the musicians Orange Juice and Talking Heads and Paul Simon as references, goes on to note how Rostam Batmanglij’s “pat, classicist keyboard arpeggios lead the way through tempo shifts and transitions, occasionally locking in with some sprightly violin parts” in the song “Oxford Comma.” That song, “Oxford Comma,” actually skewers dishonesty and pretension: “Who gives a f—k about an oxford comma?” it begins, before moving on to asserting “all your diction dripping with disdain, through the pain, I always tell the truth” and “Why would you lie about how much coal you have? Why would you lie about something dumb like that? Why would you lie about anything at all?” The song “Oxford Comma” might have been made to sound angry but it actually sounds intelligent and perplexed; and the song is very appealing, nicely arranged, with a bright beat and lovely voices—in which personality and energy come through. (Its musical twang could be African music or American blues or country music.) Sometimes with young artists, especially young musicians, experience and energy may be more important than ideas or vision, although it is possible to discern the beginnings of their ideas and vision in what they actually do: and there is intelligence and joy here.

I used to listen years ago to the Specials and the Police and there are moments, as with Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk,” a song which may be about theft, personal and cultural, when I am reminded of those other bands—of their directness and fierce energy, which do not destroy the evidence of charm or sensuality (in “A-Punk” the singer’s single-syllable repeated recitation at the end of several verses is the iteration of sound without specific meaning, and with the song’s soft percussion, there is something conveyed that is subtle). Ron Hart, who concluded that Vampire Weekend’s music was some of the happiest and most vibrant in years, in his commentary on the web pages of PopMatters, January 31, 2008, mentioned as the music’s sources King Sunny Ade, the Feelies, Paul Simon, and Peter Gabriel, who is mentioned in Vampire Weekend’s insinuating song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (“Do you want to, like you know I do? But this feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too”).

Jon Pareles, in the January 28, 2008 New York Times, declared that the band “flaunts musical erudition, from Afropop guitars to mock-Baroque strings,” and said the band’s songs “could use just a little more heart.” (Are intelligence and feeling still seen as in opposition? Is joy imperceptible to some people, considered as the absence of feeling, as if sorrow were the grounding of all depth? Of course, Jon Pareles, as established, experienced, and smart as he is, does not do work that is always agreeable to me—no one does, though I do like the work of several critics, including Nate Chinen, Carol Cooper, Stanley Crouch, Christopher John Farley, Jim DeRogatis, Claudrena Harold, Tim Hughes, Greg Kot, Sarah Rodman, Kelefa Sanneh, Christian John Wikane, and Carl Wilson. We live in an age of experience and expression rather than an age of contemplation and criticism, but some writers still manage to identify, evaluate, and make meaning.) The band Vampire Weekend is conscious—and conscientious—but its music is entertaining and its singer is expressive, without constraint or pose, able to express tones that are conversational or nearly keening. In “M79,” a song that mentions a cab and rickshaw, French kids and Buddha, the singer’s voice is beautifully recorded—clear, at the center of the music, a bit low and dark, then light, almost whining, although, to my ears, by the time of the album’s song “Campus,” which suggests depression as its motivating experience, the music can seem a little redundant, but that sense of repetition does not eliminate the music’s fundamental attractions.

Indeed, this is very attractive music. Will it be durable? Will one be able to listen to it in years to come as one is able to listen to the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul? Someone I know told me that he identified the Beatles with his youth and so they had a special meaning for him. Although there were Beatles songs I heard and liked when I was very young—“All You Need Is Love,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “In My Life,” “Penny Lane,” and “Yesterday”—the Beatles, as a group, were not of significant importance to me, though I knew their legend—Paul McCartney and John Lennon meeting at a Liverpool garden party, small club shows and large halls, best-selling records and screaming fans and fainting girls, “The Ed Sullivan Show” and A Hard Day’s Night and Help! , Shea stadium and Buckingham Place, George Martin, Apple Records, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album and Let It Be. Listening now to an album such as Rubber Soul, I am impressed by its coherence, expression, intelligence, range, and sound. In Rubber Soul’s “Drive My Car” a girl wants to be a film star and suggests a man she meets can drive her car—it is an arrogance or presumption that sees her own potential but not that of someone else (she seeks a driver before she has a car)—and the song’s twanging guitar and the sung “beep-beep-yeah” may be as significant as anything the song says. “Norwegian Wood,” about a visit to a girl’s room, a long conversation, and waking alone, could be an old English folk song, though George Harrison does play sitar in it. “You Won’t See Me,” focused on a narrator who fears losing his mind thanks to the separation from a lover, demonstrates passion articulated with control: pleasantly uptempo, with short sung phrases, and a rather mindless “la la la” in the background—the “la la la” could be like noise in African music: counterpoint, texture. The song is modern in its contrast of content and technique, the kind of thing Vampire Weekend and other bands still do.

On the Beatles’ Rubber Soul in “Nowhere Man” the lines “he’s as blind as he can be, just sees what he wants to see. Nowhere Man, can you see me at all?” could fit into Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” or “Walcott.” Its lines “Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” still resonate in human lives today. Most of Rubber Soul is attributed to the writing collaboration of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but George Harrison’s “Think for Yourself” encourages independence and support. Is “The Word,” in which the word is love, offering enslavement or fulfillment: “spread the word and you’ll be free, spread the word and be like me”? Such proselytizing could be sincere or self-mocking (its directness makes both attitudes possible). The ballad “Michelle,” with its spare arrangement, could be a jazz piece; and its singer’s sudden iterations of passion offer contrast to the elegant, restrained music. The narrator asks someone about what is behind that person’s cruelty, what thought, in “What Goes On,” a song credited to Lennon, McCartney and Starkey, Richard Starkey being Ringo Starr’s birth name; and, in the song, the guitar part seems rambling, contemplative, with short, thick phrases. A man—sounds like George Harrison, to me—reflects on a relationship he’s tried to leave in Lennon-McCartney’s “Girl,” and the main lines are sung against supporting voices—here lamenting, there simply rhythmic—that seem well-arranged, thought-out: and the girl the narrator is involved with seems to think a man should break his back to earn his day of leisure and the narrator wonders if she’ll think that when he’s dead. It is the kind of question that occurs beneath the routine of Monday-through-Friday living (we are encouraged to conform to the practical demands of duty and work though they damage body and wound spirits). Sometimes I have felt as if existence were not real—but the moments of art and intellect’s reign are not the ones that feel false, but, rather, the moments of deprivation and drudgery that do; and the moments of celebration, plenty, and pride do not feel impermanent and shallow, but, rather, the moments of scarcity, shame, and sorrow feel like an imposition: what is most real—beautiful, good, true, wise—is what gratifies and nourishes the spirit.

Reflecting on the changes in someone, changes that raise agitation and worry, is “I’m Looking Through You,” with its rhythmic clicks and sharp accents. “In My Life,” the most important and interesting song on the album, my favorite song on the album Rubber Soul, is sentimental and wise, reflecting on a life of relationships and a special person; and, as with “Norwegian Wood,” it could be an old English song. Out of their joined voices, the men in the band achieve a singular voice in “Wait,” a lovely song about reconciliation, and in their other songs; but, rather than reconciliation, it is ambivalence, or even indifference, that may be the dominate mood of George Harrison’s composition “If I Needed Someone.” The most shocking song to me on Rubber Soul is—or was—the one that closes the album, “Run for Your Life,” a song in which a man admits jealousy and threatens to kill a woman if he sees her with another man—until I realized that this was a musical and thematic update of the blues, with its extreme emotions. The Beatles were continuing and revising tradition. The man in the song “Run for Your Life” is a character; and the writers of the song, the men in the band, are storytellers. As people, artists can be as selfish, as destructive, as anyone, sometimes more so; but, in their work as artists, they are more creative and more generous than anyone, generous beyond their lifetimes.

I enjoy and admire many musicians, among them Corinne Bailey Rae, Bright Eyes, Roberta Flack, Gnarls Barkley, Annie Lennox, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, Modest Mouse, Seal, Caetano Veloso, Cassandra Wilson, and Lizz Wright. I do not know if Vampire Weekend, whom I like now, will be among those artists I think of as my favorites in time to come. Hearing the band’s music on the radio in the months since its album appearance, I have sometimes thought the music unique and sometimes I have thought the music too thin. But, the future of the band’s placement in the popular music canon, or my personal canon, is not what I think about when I’m listening to Vampire Weekend’s “Mansard Roof,” “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “Cape Code Kwassa Kwassa” or “Bryn,” a song with a terrific guitar opening and nice arrangement—there is yet too much fresh personality and high energy for that kind of assessment. There is music one listens to at home, in private, and, often, a different music one listens to in public, with others: and, now, I can see how one can listen to the band Vampire Weekend at any time. However, it would be hard to make a case for profundity with the lyric obscurities of Vampire Weekend’s “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” but how many of us want to drearily defend pleasure? It is easier, and more natural, to have pleasure than to defend it. “I Stand Corrected” is itself about imperfection and its acceptance, about human connection, in the simplest terms: “No one cares when you are wrong. Forget the protocol. I’ll take your hand right in mind.”

“Walcott,” which suggests Cape Cod can be a ghetto, a trap, where “evil feasts on human lives,” sounds like a traditional, composed (western) piece, though some of the song’s rhythms could be Spanish as much as African; and I like the self-control in the singer’s voice. Is it a harp I hear in “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” a song which has an intricate arrangement and changing structure? The band Vampire Weekend makes good music.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AllAboutJazz.com, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.

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