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Album Review: Vampire Weekend’s Only God Was Above Us (2024) Finds Peace In the Bleak and Dire

Photo by Ralph_PH via Flickr (licensed under CC BY-2.0 DEED)

When it comes to shaping the sound of indie rock today, Vampire Weekend’s influence is incomparable. Founded in 2006, the collective has redefined what the genre can be with their innovative blends of Afro-Pop, West Indian palettes, orchestral music and punk, alongside catchy guitar riffs and topical tongue-in-cheek lyricism. Their reception has been polarising, with sunny, overly joyous tracks about the ‘oxford comma’ and college romances becoming their main breakout hits. Equally, a veil of Ivy League boy pretentiousness, combined with ‘cultural appropriation’ accusations, continued to follow them around. 

“They’re attacking us for a version of us that doesn’t exist”, the frontman Ezra Koenig stated in an early interview regarding their mythicised representation in the media. Indeed Ezra’s writing can be cryptic at times, it is still impressively poignant, introspective, and socially conscious, and the band’s aesthetic is understandable enough. And their musical vocabulary has grown regardless of being pigeonholed by critics: both successors to the self-titled studio album, Contra and Modern Vampires of The City (2013), stood as a testament to the band’s knack for versatile production and fantastic song-writing, remaining one of my all time favorites to this day. Whilst Father of The Bride (2019) blessed us with Vampire Weekend’s biggest earworms like ‘Harmony Hall’ and ‘This Life’, it did feel a bit sonically flat and devoid of substance on the whole, making me worried they’d contracted the Arcade Fire syndrome of regressing to a mere shell of their former indie rock inventiveness. But their latest album Only God Was Above Us (2024) has only proven otherwise.


Only God Was Above Us is arguably Vampire Weekend’s conceptually tightest record to date, with the same old charm and refreshingly new approaches. Whilst remaining deeply in touch with their original sound and sensibilities, their latest album brings a new perspective which contrasts their previous approach when dissecting social circumstances. This new lens is more passive and zoomed out, placing the primary focus on the individual and attempting to find peace amidst all the bleaks and dires that plague our lives. “Fuck the world/You said it quiet/No one could hear you/No one but me”, Ezra proclaims on the opener, ‘Ice Cream Piano’, underscoring the futility of cynicism in a state of complete powerlessness. He continues: ”You don’t want to win this war ‘cause you don’t want the peace” – a line which perfectly encapsulates the larger statement of this record. 

In a recent Zane Lowe interview, Ezra himself spoke of this shared mentality where each year to follow is the “worst year so far”, which is especially the case now when seeing the world fall progressively deeper into the abyss of social turmoil, class struggle, war and genocide. The ultimate question we always avoid is “What if it never gets better?” – how is one to find happiness as an insignificant bystander in the face of such widespread despondence? All of this messaging is delivered on top of these explosive, distorted guitar riffs that are exhilaratingly fun.


The dirty palettes established on the opener evolve with each track, building captivating soundscapes that are flawlessly arranged. Every single instrument occupies its own, perfect corner of the mix, with each texture being prominent and inexcessive to the experience. All songs sound like they took 10 years of craftsmanship, while simultaneously adopting this slightly messy, thrown together aesthetic that’s perfectionistically loose. It feels like you’re listening to a dusty, scratched vinyl from an old coffee shop – a vibe that is beautifully juxtaposed with the very contemporary themes and feelings expressed in Ezra’s lyricism.


The riffs and horns are oftentimes quite harsh, walking the thin line between groovy and jarring freely and confidently. For example, the hook on ‘Classical’ features a central guitar line which can initially be abrasive compared to the gentler acoustic sections and Ezra’s intimate vocals interspersed throughout; but after a few listens, it crawled inside my ear unrelentingly and refused to leave. The ingenuity of these contrasts that nonetheless manage to strike a strange balance of their own is what makes Only God Was Above Us such a compelling listen.


‘Gen X-Cops’ is another explosive hard-hitter from the same recipe book, where the silly, unpolished guitar riffs take center stage much like the highlights from Modern Vampires of The City. Ezra’s lyricism grapples with aging and time as captured in mantras like “Each generation makes its own apology”, describing a transition to a strange, new point in life he finds himself in, whilst hinting towards a detachment from his former self. Numerous creative touches bring the track together, be it the subtle BPM drops, Ezra’s vocal intonation, or the stochastic splashes of instrumentation that make each verse a flavorful joyride, like the woozy, piano improvisation and angelic harps.


A deliberate lack of structure becomes part of the structure, making for unpredictable and gratifying song progressions across the record. The most experimental of which is in ‘Connect’: listeners expect the eccentric piano introduced at the start to return for the hook, but the track shifts from one landscape and plays with expectations. Just when Ezra’s climactic delivery teases you into expecting a grandiose instrumental solo, the track strips back entirely, exposing these buried congas that become the new focal point, and the verse continues like nothing happened, only for that same confused flurry of keys to kick back in once you’ve stopped anticipating them – a really engaging exercise in unconventional pacing.


‘Capricorn’, on the other hand, has a standard, indie pop progression with soft acoustic instrumentation on the verses, but is reinvigorated with crushing, distorted horn swells on Ezra’s chorus. It’s a very simple but beautifully applied idea, contaminating the otherwise clean mix with a sharp contrast. Another track that finds its appeal in simplicity is ‘Prep-School Gangsters’, driven by these sunny, infectious guitar riffs that are among the catchiest on the record, as Ezra speaks of privileged, private school individuals he’s struggled against growing up – a subtle dose of class commentary that adds to the many themes of conflict across the album.


Though it's hard to imagine how, the final tracks reach new extremes that continue the spirit of the rest of the album, with the final 3 songs arguably being the strongest in their discography. ‘Mary Boone’ is handily the catchiest banger on here, with a satisfying development of musical textures that build up towards the central, driving piano melody that’s a complete, ecstatic riot. As well as its flawless pacing, the song demonstrates the potential of their lyricism: Ezra contemplates the emptiness that money has afforded him, while using the defunct, fraudulent art dealer, Mary Boone, as a motif to paint the feeling of being forgotten – a superficially appreciated art piece in a sea of others from her collection (“Mary Boone, Mary Boone, I’m on the dark side of your room”).


Then, the penultimate song, ‘Pravda’, is reminiscent of Contra, with glittering synths in the background reminding me of highlights like ‘White Sky’. Against the references to Russian culture and allusions to the never ending debate between capitalism and communism, Ezra seems apathetic: “They always ask me about Pravda/It’s just a Russian word for truth”), expressing a desire to just “leave it all behind” (“I cannot wait here any longer/I’m leaving at the rising of the moon”). Thematically, this distance may represent him finally finding peace in the hopelessness – an attempt to move on and embrace the disappointments of life with open hands, rather than remaining angry at the world.


The closer ‘Hope’ proceeds to hammer this idea in, with an appeal to the listener to just “let go”. Ezra lists tragic historical events, America’s wars, failed murder trials and conspiracies that claimed humanity will disappear in hope of illustrating that, against all odds, we’re still here (“The prophet said we’d disappear/The prophet’s gone, but we’re still here/The prophecy was insincere/I hope you let it go”). Importantly, this doesn’t read as a call to become passive per se, but rather as an urge to find a semblance of meaning when being passive is the only option.


What I love the most about this track is its immaculate, glacially slow pacing, as it truly sounds like nothing Vampire Weekend did previously. It’s an epic, incredibly patient, 8 minute long cinematic masterpiece that swallows you entirely, leaving you sad and hopeful at the same time. It kicks off with these pretty piano and acoustic arrangements, with the sound palette growing slightly wider with each verse, presenting you with one new idea at a time and squeezing all the juice out of it before introducing the next one. With each added instrument – the triumphant strings on the second verse, the sentimental, secondary piano melody around the midpoint, the overwhelming guitar distortion by the end – the emotion changes and intensifies, never leaving you unengaged. It feels like an entire life flashing before you, with the same piano line marching along endlessly as sceneries pass. There’s few Vampire Weekend tracks that leave me in such a state of awe, making ‘Hope’ one of my favorite songs of theirs and a perfect way to wrap the album up narratively.


What Vampire Weekend accomplished here is pure art, packed with everything the fans love them for and much more. Lamentations over the passage of time, history and being lost in the midst of it all seem to be the theme of 2024, with the record dropping right after MGMT’s amazing ‘Loss of life’ – an album that posed many of these questions, but left us with no answers. Only God Was Above Us, on the other hand, pushes us to find our own corner in this confusing world with the simple message of letting go, while giving us what will most likely be one of the most beautiful and gratifying indie rock experiences of the year.


Edited by Akane Hayashi, Music Editor


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