Vampire Weekend’s new album, “Father Of The Bride,” is really Jewish.
Imagine this: You’re walking down the street and you run into the reanimated body of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and she hands you a bowl of matzo ball soup, and you look down and all the matzo balls have been replaced by Shabbat-O’-Grams that your camp boyfriend sent you in the summer of 2006.
The album is more Jewish than that.
Moony bandleader and eternal undergraduate Ezra Koenig has kept quiet since 2013’s “Modern Vampire Of The City.” That album was devastatingly philosophical and aesthetic, like an Abercrombie model who went on to get a Phd in Classics. This one is a mishmash of controlled experimentation and desperate cheerfulness, like an Abercrombie model who went on to get a Phd in Classics and is now applying for jobs.
my Hanukkah wish is for Bernie Sanders to decisively overtake Netanyahu as the world’s most famous politician of Jewish descent— Ezra Koenig (@arzE) December 24, 2016
Since the acclaimed “Modern Vampires,” the band has lost Rostam Batmanglij, who produced or co-produced every other “Vampire Weekend” album and regularly shared writing credits with Koenig. Koenig settled down with Jewish actress Rashida Jones, and has produced both a baby and a radio show. “Father of the Bride” is the first album by the band to feature a singer other than Koenig — Danielle Haim, of the sister band Haim — duets on three tracks. Her partner Ariel Rechtshaid, an Israeli-American with a massive musical resume, co-produced this album, as he did “Modern Vampires.”
you’re not rich til they got “your name + Jewish” up in the top google searches— Ezra Koenig (@arzE) July 10, 2013
Perhaps the most “Jewish” thing about the eighteen (chai) tracks of “Father of the Bride” is that it feels so anxiously, exquisitely pulled in several directions at once. The album manages to feel experimental and traditional, stifled and free, joyful and mournful. There’s also significant use of Christian imagery — as Jesus Christ, Moses Mendelssohn, and David Brooks have demonstrated, there’s something very Jewish about taking Christianity seriously.
Without further ado, every Jewish reference on “Father of The Bride”:
1) “Hold You Now”
Twee and mournful, like “Leaving, On A Jet Plane” for the post-monogamy age, the first duet between Koenig and Haim follows an aggrieved adulterous couple on the morning of the woman’s wedding. He sobs in the sheets, she’s stoic in white and thinking about her father. “The pews are getting filled up, the organ’s playing loud”…it’s all just so Christian! This feeling is underscored — and not — by the interstitial Melanesian choral song, “God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi,” performed by the Choir of All Saints, an annotation on Genius explains. “God, accept my life,” they sing, in English Creole. “I give it now to you, and forever.” Either the bride is a big believer in classical Reform Jewish organ music, or Koenig is deliberately using Christian wedding motifs to illustrate the connection between humans and the divine. Relationships on this album, we can see, will be crooked; the bride and her lover have an ambiguous past, but the singers and God — that’s forever.
2) “Harmony Hall”
The best and longest song on the album, “Harmony Hall” is at once a sweet little ditty and an anguished outcry at the rise of white supremacy. Channeling Paul Simon, Koenig’s nimble wording and folky fingerpicking are so soothing you might not notice that the lyrics lay out the treacherous journey from America’s founding summer to the “late December” in which we now find ourselves. The “harmony” that the United States promised — especially to Jews — has become a cover under which hatred festers, creating a growing din. “I thought that I was free from all that questioning,” sings Koenig, like Jews from time immemorial who realize they’ve beached yet again on an unsafe shore. “But every time a problem ends, another one begins.” Sure do. Our stiff-necked “worried mind” people can never forget the “wicked snakes” — which sometimes take the form of swastikas — “inside the place we thought was dignified.”
Koenig’s most overtly Jewish lyrics come in the second verse: “Within the halls of power lies a nervous heart that beats/Like a Young Pretender’s,” it begins — and doesn’t every Jew, even in the highest hall of power, still feel like a pretender? “Beneath these velvet gloves I hide/The shameful, crooked hands of a moneylender/’Cause I still remember…”
Who could forget? From Steve Mnuchin on down, Jews can feel the legacy of our centuries in Europe. And we can’t deny that “Every time a problem ends, another one begins.” We don’t want to live this way, Koenig warbles. But we don’t want to die. The question of the cost of Jewish survival — and human survival — reasserts itself throughout the album, only to be answered by another question in the final track.
In stark contrast to many other songs by Koenig, the speaker in “Bambina” is explicitly Christian. But the song seems satirical — “My Christian heart can not withstand the thundering arena/I’ll see you when the violence ends!” the chorus runs. “For now, ciao ciao!” Early Christians were persecuted by Romans in giant arenas, for an audience — the memory of this horror is mockingly juxtaposed with a modern “Christian,” who might turn away from contemporary violence, citing delicate religious sensibilities.
4) “Big Blue”
The singer is emotional to the point of anguish — he has been offered “protection” when he “couldn’t go home,” but the offer makes him feel deeply conflicted and, ironically, more isolated than ever by “Big Blue.”
Call us crazy — this is about Israel, right?
Shoutout to a West Coast Schmooze-reader who pointed this out. One telling detail is that the singer repeats the same verse four times — Jews get this agonized about only one thing, folks, and it’s Yisrael! Or, alternatively, this is about the sky or the ocean.
5) “How Long?”
Yet another song that references Christianity (“You broke my heart at midnight mass/Now I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past”) and then turns dolefully Old Testament. “How long ‘til we sink to the bottom of the sea?” Koenig chirps. “How long, how long?” How long ‘til this singer gets a dosage adjustment on his depression meds? We hate to label all neurotic things under the sun as Jewish (Jews contain multitudes, y’all!) but there is something very Jewish about this peppy doomsday bop. “What’s the point of human beings?” the singer asks. Well, there are some pretty good answers, Ezra, but they’re all in a really long book.
6) “Unbearably White”
Are Jews white? Is Ezra Koenig, an Ashkenazi Jew and the lead singer of a band that has been criticized for its extreme “whiteness” actually white? This song will not answer that, but it will make you want to lie down on the floor and smoke clove cigarettes.
7) “Married In A Gold Rush”
Crack open your Tanach to the Book of Daniel, because Vampire Weekend sure did. In the second duet between Koenig and Haim on the album, they both sing about the pain of a relationship that started “in a gold rush” — a time of prosperity — and has never been the same. One illustration of this feeling, they sing, is “Hanging gardens turned to desert.” This, an annotation on the lyrics site Genius points out, is a reference to the hanging gardens built by the biblical and historical Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, for his wife. Those gardens were considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but nothing gold (or green) can stay, of course.
The songwriter knows his Scriptures — in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is plagued by dreams about a statue with a gold head and a body made of various other materials. In the dream, the statue is hit by a small stone and the pieces are blown away in the wind, representing the kingdoms overseen by Nebuchadnezzar which will fall away, just as the singers’ perfect romance has been whisked away by the waning days of the gold rush. Not gold, but only the kingdom of heaven, says Daniel, can remain. Is Vampire Weekend suggesting the same?
“Judeo-Christianity, I’d never heard the word!/Enemies for centuries, until there was a third,” Koenig spits in the second verse of the chaotic, erotic “Sympathy,” which vibrates with Steve Lacy’s guitar. Hope you’re sitting down for this, Meghan McCain and friends — Vampire Weekend is myth-busting the concept of “Judeo-Christian” — the pseudo-academic phrase suggests a union between the two religions that’s ahistorical, the lyrics argue. “Now we’ve got that sympathy/What I’m to you, you are to me/Let’s go!” they continue. What does it mean to gain the “sympathy” of the most powerful of your longtime foes, now that you perceive yourself to share a common enemy? Israeli politicians might be able to answer that, though probably less tunefully.
The music video for the extraordinary song “Sunflower” was directed by Jewish actor Jonah Hill, shot at Jewish grocery stores and delis on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and featured a cameo by Jerry Seinfeld. The Schmooze was not fond of the video.
Jenny Lewis, the lead singer of Rilo Kiley and the provider of female vocals on the lilting “2021,” is Jewish.
11) “We Go Together”
The matchy-matchy love song has been done, and done, and done. Contemporary musical theater is particularly partial to it (see “Without Love,” from “Hairspray,” “I Got You” from “Bring It On,” “Together Again” from “Young Frankenstein.”) The Vampire Weekend take on the form begins with the usual suspects — black and white, day and night, left and right — then veers into “lions and lambs,” “Keats and Yeats,” and “these old states.”
The lion and lamb imagery, which belonged originally to Isaiah but became central for Christians, is meant to herald the Messianic age. “Hallelujah, you’re still mine,” ring the last words of the song. “All I did was waste your time/If there’s not some grand design/How’d this pair of stars align?” The singer has found his bashert, it seems, and is gesturing with thanks, at last, to The Father of the Bride.
Listen to the thrumming, gentle beat of “Stranger,” and remember a central tenet of Torah teaching — “You shall not oppress or mistreat a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” The sentiment is repeated several times in the Torah text and has been taken as a rallying cry by Jews who are moved to social justice work. “I remember life as a stranger…things change,” Koenig reflects again and again, in the chorus. But he reminds himself — both in his relationship, and in the current climate — “Things have never been stranger/Things are gonna stay strange.”
13) “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”
Put this in your apple bong and smoke it, undergraduates — it’s a song from the King of the liberal arts campus that doesn’t totally eviscerate the idea of a Jewish state. The melancholic meditation on Judaism, God, and Israel (classic rock albums stuff!) is not an embrace of Zionism, but it does take a pained, nuanced look at where world Jewry finds itself today. “I know I loved you then/I think I love you still/But this prophecy of ours/Has come back dressed to kill,” the singer begins. It’s not clear if he’s singing about his god, his country, or his people. “You’ve given me the big dream/But you can’t make it real,” he adds, and it’s hard not to hear an inverse of Herzl’s iconic “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
In the second verse, he turns directly to Jewish statehood — “A hundred years or more/It feels like such a dream/An endless conversation since 1917” — 1917 was the year when the Balfour Declaration gave modern Zionists their written support for an internationally recognized Jewish state. Referencing Balfour as the beginning of the Israel “conversation” tells us a lot about the songwriter’s feelings about the country — if you think Israel’s legitimacy stems largely from a piece of paper written by a British lord 100 years ago, the premise of the country starts to feel a lot less firm.
“So let them win the battle/But don’t let them restart/That genocidal feeling/That beats in every heart,” he concludes. Oof. This Jew assumed the line referred to avoiding another genocide of Jews. Chris DeVille, who reviewed the album for StereoGum, read the line as cautioning against a genocidal impulse against Palestinians. So! One of us is wrong.
Oh, wicked world — where do the Jews belong? Jerusalem, New York, Berlin? Elsewhere? Or nowhere?
“Modern Vampires of the City,” the band’s last album, was a profound meditation on temporality and death. “This is the life-goes-on record,” Koenig told Rolling Stone of “Father of the Bride.” Things get worse, but life goes on. It’s an enduring Jewish sentiment, for an enduring Jewish album.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny