Sophomore jitters would be natural. How could any band live up to the hype and buzz lavished on Vampire Weekend’s self-titled 2008 debut? Even worse, when everyone’s raved about your “fresh,” “new,” “original” sound – what path do you take? Dig farther into that stylistic groove and you’re imitating yourselves; invent a different “new” sound for Album Number Two and you’ve abandoned your roots.
Yet with cool self-confidence, Vampire Weekend has jumped off that cliff, and their second release, Contra, pops right up to the surface and takes off swimming. This record still jangles with the band’s trademark world music underpinnings – a veritable U.N. of sounds (Mexicali, ska, Bollywood, dancehall, reggaeton, West African pop) – filigreed with classical flourishes (harpsichord counterpoint, baroque strings). Within that familiar framework, on Contra Vampire Weekend extends its brand carefully, addressing new themes and wider emotional territory. Success hasn’t mellowed them; it’s only confirmed their personality, packing their aural textures more densely, with a recording style that’s lusher and (marginally) less spiky.
As on the previous album, their songs are mostly cryptic diary entries set to music. Rather than universalizing their experience – how 20th century! — they simply allow us to peek into their lives. Granted, there’s a sort of reality show fascination about observing this privileged milieu — midtown Manhattan office jobs, post-grad stints in England, uniformed doormen, trust fund babies, polished wastrels in cars with diplomat plates. With all the coded cultural references, you don’t need to see the band’s usual preppie stage get-ups to know that they’re a bunch of Ivy League grads, well-traveled and insanely well-read.
“In the winter I drink Horchata,” the first track begins; “I look psychotic in a balaclava” — a globe-trotter’s mash-up of fashion notes, foodie references, and shrink talk, and that’s just the first seven seconds of the CD. You practically need a handbook to get all the Manhattan references in the calypso-accented “White Sky,” or the LA-to-UK nexus of “California English,” with its rippling AutoTuned vocals. (Score an extra 50 points on your SATs if you know what the Hapa Club is.)