The best albums of 2013: No 4 – Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend

No more a novelty band, Vampire Weekend encountered and faced up to dread on their brilliant third album

See all our albums of the year coverage here

How does a record so concerned with dilemmas of Jewish theology, so in thrall to the doomy ticking of clocks, reach No 1 both in the Billboard and UK charts, selling roughly 750,000 copies to date? Modern Vampires of the City was recently revealed as Rolling Stone's album of the year as well. Not many records pull off a commercial-critical one-two, even fewer do it while this laden with dread. "There's a tombstone right in front of you/ And everyone I know," croons Ezra Koenig, on just one of the dozens of references to mortality and the remorseless passing of time on Vampire Weekend's third album.

Modern Vampires of the City – the title lifts a line from Junior Reid's unity anthem, One Blood – achieves all this by being dazzlingly elliptical; hiding its insights under bushels of fun. Take the first single: with its surf guitar and pell-mell pace, Diane Young might sound as though it's just a tune about a photogenic good-time girl crashing a Saab. But she is, literally, dying young, and – as drummer Chris Thomson pummels his kit so hard you wince for his wrists – singer Ezra Koenig is wondering whether seizing the day (YOLO – you only live once – in today's parlance) is worth the cost.

VW have always been absurdly catchy, which is how they sold a hybrid of hoity-toity collegiate punk and west African cantering beyond an audience of Columbia University undergraduates in the first place. Modern Vampires of the City is even more nagging than usual, the better to party on its fears. The galloping Worship You finds Koenig virtually yodelling a tongue-twister. It could be about a particularly demanding lady ("Only in the way you want it/ Only on the days you want it"). Turns out, it's about how fussy the almighty is about being worshipped.

Reading on mobile? Listen to Modern Vampires of the City on Spotify

The deity gets another cameo on Ya Hey – part-medieval prance, part-R&B confection. The title is not just an inversion of Outkast's Hey Ya, but a slurring of Yahweh, and Koenig ponders the niceties of speaking the name of God, while chopped-and-screwed production techniques make a chorus out of backwards chipmunks. It is light; it is heavy, just like the rest of this nuanced work.

No African forms were harmed in the making of this album, as Vampire Weekend sought to distance themselves from their USP. Instead, Rostam Batmanglij lays a surfeit of western classical tradition on steals from rockabilly and gospel, adding near eastern accents and – his mum thinks – a minor Persian influence. Nothing is an accident, everything works: the crowd noises, the hiss, Finger Back's little story about the Orthodox Jewish girl falling for the guy in the falafel shop.

The extraordinary Step best captures the way high-culture harpsichords can collide with heritage hip-hop references in Vampire Weekend's king-size soundbed, offset by pitch-shifted samples and piano lines. The lyrics ("The gloves are off/ The wisdom teeth are out") retain the dizzying preppy wit of Koenig's previous output, while gaining in grace. Once, the band observed the manners of the young, cultured and monied with wry detachment, which was often wilfully misunderstood as complicity. Now their own fears – death, zealots, hellfire and Manhattan property leasehold terms – stalk this set of songs.

Boggling nerdily at Rostam Batmanglij's sound design is just one way to savour Modern Vampires of the City; other responses are just a valid. Jumping around, for one, or swooning to the love songs. Hannah Hunt doubles as a kind of love letter to the US landscape, even as the album's cover image hymns a New York rising out of a cloud of smog. Throughout, Koenig's tone is feather-light, tender and concerned with prettiness, not crass impact. The disconnect between the heft of Koenig's musings and the offhandness of their delivery is just one of this strong album's strongest suits. These vampires never, ever stick their teeth in.

See all our Best Albums of 2013 coverage here


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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