In the reality show Project Runway, the sage wisdom of prim and proper fashion guru Tim Gunn is a lifeline of support to the contestants clamoring to be the next top designer. One of his always cutting pieces of advice is particularly sharp for those in the creative field; when you’re working with a lot of ideas, it’s crucial you step back and think “Edit, edit, edit” – which of these ideas can be stripped back, trimmed down, or cut away entirely? As I immersed myself in the world of Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride, I was haunted by the sound of Tim Gunn’s reedy, nasal voice echoing through my head, “Edit, edit, edit.”
It’s not that Vampire Weekend can’t deliver a multifaceted project with substantial scope; indeed, at 18 tracks clocking in at just under an hour, they did precisely that. But what bogs Father of the Bride down is the feeling that there is just too much going on. Exploring and interpolating multiple genres is par for the course for a musician in 2019, but this record sounds like frontman Ezra Koenig’s attempt to reimagine the Great American Songbook as a manifesto of world peace and unity on a macro-scale large enough to be palatable for every person on the planet. In so doing, they have lost touch with what made them such a unique, enjoyable band in the first place.
This approach was evident upon the release of lead single “Harmony Hall,” which in the context of the full album crystallizes this ideal. In the first minute of its runtime, we are introduced to a folksy guitar far more jangly than anything in the band’s catalog thus far, a ’90s house keyboard line and bongo drums which eventually give way to a chorus that recycles a refrain from their 2013 album Modern Vampires of the City and sounds like the sort of earnest, hands-in-the-air singalong that would soundtrack a United Colors of Benetton ad. In the past, this would have been succinctly on-brand for Vampire Weekend, but the 2019 iteration of this aesthetic is entirely lacking in any of the irony or irreverent self-awareness that has characterized them until now.
“Harmony Hall” is among the tamer musical meanderings Father of the Bride takes us on, the most confusing of which are the sharp turns into country and bluegrass territory. HAIM’s Danielle Haim duets with Koenig on three separate tracks that sound like the pair are cosplaying as Johnny Cash and June Carter, steel pedal guitar twangs and all. “Married in a Gold Rush” dissects the shifting value of a relationship but loses its self-seriousness with the clunker of an opening line “Something’s happening in the country/ And the government’s to blame,” a pithy aside to today’s ‘troubled times’ that is dead on arrival. Later, on “We Belong Together,” the pair go for a twee romantic ‘he-said she-said’ with lyrical couplets tailor-made for an Urban Outfitters wall hanging.
Fortunately, there are more successful attempts at genre subversion. “Sunflower” is a straight-up bop, flawlessly incorporating the funk-inflected guitar of guest Steve Lacy into the more stiff-collared Koenig approach, while “2021” combines such seemingly disparate elements as a music box lullaby, heavy cocaine use-era Fleetwood Mac guitars, and chopped and screwed breakdowns into a cohesive, charming whole.
But what is exceedingly frustrating are the songs that successfully balance their palate of influences only to crumble from some truly baffling production choices. “Flower Moon” welcomes us with some wacky autotune and a spoken word, and it makes us question whether we really need the addition of some Stevie Wonder keys, then the addition of some strings, then the addition of some horns, then the addition of a single tuba note. “How Long” tosses in a lick of ’80s power pop guitar that exists for a solitary second and vanishes; “Sympathy” chugs along at an even keel only to drop in an action movie, Doppler Effect vocal cascade and tango-inspired handclaps. These are not the sounds of artistic liberation, but those of a creator with too much time on his hands. Father of the Bride is filled with such idiosyncratic moments that only serve to show just how much time was spent laboring over this product in the studio, no one was on hand to remind them to edit, edit, edit.
Which sucks, because somewhere in this mess is a really good Vampire Weekend album. The ungainly sprawl distracts from the absolutely stellar musicianship going on. “Unbearably White” is a somber paean to a simpler stage of intimacy that ends with a harmonic outro that is downright bone-chilling. Subsequent track “Rich Man” is proof that Koenig is among the most talented lyricists working right now, a point that is driven further home by such immediate standouts as “How Long”‘s “When we play at democracy you always take immunity.”
Many have discussed Father of the Bride as the sound of Vampire Weekend mellowing out, a metaphor for the brash precociousness of your 20s evolving into the more languid, thoughtful approach of life in your 30s. Yet equally of merit is the interpretation of the easy confidence of youth giving way to the painfully worked-on, overthought approach of your parents. This is Vampire Weekend’s dad moment, and they could not sound more suited to being the voice of a generation taken off their soapbox while continuing to rant.