How hard is it to be religious in the modern world? Well, it depends whom you ask. While modern America affords a gamut of offerings by which to express one's religion, the tendency to frown upon faith, that niggling little thing, remains a popular alternative in certain high-minded, culturally conversant circles. So what to do when one feels the intimations of that which is transcendent but has been trained all his life to scorn such acknowledged tripe? Ezra Koenig, lead singer and chief lyricist for Vampire Weekend, has had this question on his mind of late, if the indie-pop group's third album, Modern Vampires of the City, is any indication.
Religious questioning abounds on the album. Take the lyrical musings in the upbeat "Unbelievers." This song hints at once at reincarnation ("If I'm born again, the world will disagree") antiquated notions of hell ("We know the fire awaits unbelievers") and the desire for divine favor ("Want a little grace, but who's going to say a little grace for me?"), before settling, rather dourly, on the song's central tenet, the fatalistic statement that "Girl, you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train." Quite the unflinching deterministic attitude, and not one we might expect from the same guy who once sang about sipping San Pellegrino aranciata in December snow while pincher crabs nibbled at his (presumably) designer sandals.
And that's only the beginning. The number of God references on the album is startling from a band more commonly associated with the woes of the well-educated (lyrically) and perky campus rock (sonically). Just perusing the song titles drives home the preoccupation Koenig's been having with his would-be deity. "Worship You," "Everlasting Arms," "Unbelievers" and "Ya Hey" (a play-on-words that fuses and flips the divine name Yahweh with Outkast's classic "Hey Ya!") are but several examples.
This latter track most pointedly and poignantly delves into what appears to be Koenig's inability to embrace a God figure. "America don't love you, so I could never love you, in spite of everything." Laid bare is the relevant dilemma faced by those who have been raised in somewhat religious environs as they mature and develop as thinkers and rationalists. How to square what perceives to occasionally be design and an existence and inner life beyond the surface of things when the larger society shuns such nonsense? If America don't love God, how can one who's born there hope to survive spiritually unscathed? Koenig, like many a great Jewish thinker, raises the questions and then effectively walks away, leaving the audience to come up with answers of their own.
Another current weaving through Modern Vampires is Koenig's building fascination with his (and everyone's) looming demise. While the bouncy, shape-shifting "Diane Young" is a joyous paean to living fast and dying young ("I had this feeling that the world doesn't want a song called 'Dying Young'," Koenig told Pitchfork, "it just sounded so heavy and self-serious, whereas 'Diane Young' sounded like a nice person's name."), "Don't Lie" is a more sobering, solemn take on death, sounding the unpleasant gong that "There's a headstone right in front of you, and everyone I know."
How does one make sense of the interplay between man's finitude and the subtle hope for belief in something larger, some strain of religious life? No easy answer. But for Koenig, the pendulum appears to be swinging between choosing to momentarily shun God ("I thought it over, and drew the curtain, leave me to my cell," from "Everlasting Arms") and trying to ignore the nagging feelings of regret ("In the dark of this place, there's the glow of your face ... And I can't help but feel that I've made some mistake, but I let it go," from "Ya Hey"). If these and the other songs are any indication, this is an issue that continues to plague the man. Hopefully he'll be able to find his worship-worthy master, be held in those everlasting arms, and complete the transition from unbeliever to keeper of a zealous heart.