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Vampire Weekend’s Latest Album Is Ezra Koenig’s Guide for the Perplexed

On ‘Modern Vampires of the City,’ the frontman wrestles with Jewish questions, calling to mind a personal Kol Nidre

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Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. (Margarita Korol)
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Remembrances of holy days in Tarrytown and Rye
I don’t wanna live like this, I don’t wanna die — “Finger Back”

Three years ago I was seeking tickets for one of three sold-out Vampire Weekend concerts at Radio City Music Hall. The tickets were a kind of early Sweet Sixteen gift for my youngest daughter. I was looking for three good seats—for Jackie, her girlfriend, and myself—and I suspect that among the three of us, I was the most dedicated fan.

Having worked as a pop music critic for 40 years, I knew someone to call for the favor of buying “house” seats without going the scalper route. But there was an awkward aspect to the request. I could only use tickets for Sept. 15 or 16. The third show, Sept. 17, was erev Yom Kippur, and the only song in my heart that night would be “Kol Nidre.”

But I was curious how Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend’s singer, guitarist, and primary lyricist, felt about performing on the holiest night of the Jewish year. So, I asked his mother, Bobby Bass. I had known Bass, a New Jersey psychotherapist, since we attended Bard College together in the late 1960s; in the early 1970s, we lived on the same street in Chelsea at a time when one could rent a Manhattan apartment for under $200 a month.

She told me that Ezra had gone to Hebrew school and been bar mitzvahed in their suburban, predominantly gentile New Jersey town. He decided that organized religion was not for him. That was his choice. Koenig played that Yom Kippur show at Radio City on Sept. 17, 2010, and I respect that choice.

But I do wonder if Koenig even had second thoughts about that Yom Kippur show. Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, was released this May. Like its 2010 predecessor, Contra, it made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. The band has been playing the North American and European festival circuit during the summer and headlined the Ottawa Folk Festival on Rosh Hashanah and the Boston Calling Festival last weekend. It begins its North American arena tour Sept. 19 in Philadelphia and will play the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Sept. 20.

I would like to think I would not perform on Yom Kippur, but if I were the only Jew in the band, as Koenig may be, I would. (His songwriting partner in Vampire Weekend, Rosham Batmanglij, is a non-Jewish first-generation Persian-American, and though Koenig and Batmanglij are apparently close collaborators, the credits of Modern Vampires of the City make a point of identifying Koenig as the lyricist.) If the tour was booked a year ahead, as they often are, and the conflict was inadvertent, the tickets already sold, I’d probably play. If God is not a bush-league pinch-hitter to get us out of any jam we’re in, neither can someone replace the band’s nominal leader if he decides not to play, to break a promise made to fans, to his band mates, and to his music.

***

Intentionally or not, Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, written and sung by Koenig, appear to wrestle with questions of Jewish identity, of spiritual seeking and spiritual torment, of being Jewish in America and our relationship and responsibilities to Israel. At first I thought this might be an overzealous interpretation. When Modern Vampires of the City came out, I was accelerating my efforts to connect my higher-power-oriented spirituality with the powerful but transient Jewish connection with which I was seized in my first year of Hebrew school, inspired by a teacher who stressed piety and sacrifice, with tales of Rabbi Akiva and the other Jewish martyrs. The connection became diluted, but it never entirely disappeared. But by the time of my bar mitzvah in 1962, my enthusiasm for Torah had gone into remission. My fantasy at 13 was to replace my Haftorah reading with a spontaneous, combustible rendition of the Isley Brothers’ soul gospel hit “Shout!” while dancing splits on the bima.

Today, much of Modern Vampires of the City strikes me as deeply meaningful from a Jewish perspective. “Ya Hey” confronts God directly, as the chorus chants what sounds like “Yahweh,” while Koenig sings: “Through the fire and through the flames, you won’t even say your name/ Only I am what I am.” The image of fire—a symbol of the Torah—is repeated in many songs.

In “Unbelievers,” Koenig sings, “We know the fire awaits unbelievers,” he sings, and asks: “I’m not excited, but should I be? Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” One thinks of the popular evangelical Christian Left Behind fiction series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The series about the Rapture, and the return of Jesus, has been vetted by the Anti-Defamation League, which notes “the violent death of nonbelievers,” as it describes “a world in which Jews are not as fully human as Christians—unless they become Christians.”

There are songs featuring visitations from a nameless stranger with spiritual power. In “Hannah Hunt,” “a man of faith said hidden eyes/ Could see what I was thinking. But I just smiled and told him that was only true of Hannah,” Koenig sings. Maybe “hunt” isn’t a proper noun, the girl’s last name. Suppose it’s a verb? Hannah, in the Bible, hunts for relief from depression and barrenness, and in so doing reaches Hashem with silent prayer: the first Amidah. In the song, the stranger doesn’t say a person with hidden eyes; he says simply, “hidden eyes could see.” God has hidden eyes; he heard what Hannah was thinking. Hannah’s story, of course, is the Rosh Hashanah Haftorah portion.

In “Hudson,” a meditation on explorer Henry Hudson’s death 400 years ago and modern Manhattan real estate, there is another spectral visitor, who tells a wonderful apocalyptic joke. “A stranger walked in through the door/ Said ‘all apartments are prewar.’/ We laughed and asked him for his name/ He stayed until the end.” He never gives his name; the end of what is never stated. Perhaps it’s about eternity, as in Bob Dylan’s “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” and that most moral of Dylan’s song’s warning: “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.”

This spirituality was not evident on Vampire Weekend’s 2007 self-titled debut album, heavily influenced by Paul Simon’s Graceland, the 1986 album suffused with South African musicians and their local styles. There was playful erudition. I didn’t mind the frisson of pretension of “Oxford Comma”—as a former copy editor, how could one not kvell?—or “Mansard Roof,” which forced me to the dictionary to see what a mansard roof was. On Contra, there is a similarly oblique song called “Horchata,” about a Mexican beverage, so one of the rhymes—“You’d remember drinkin’ horchata/ You’d still enjoy it with your foot on Masada”—went right past me at the time. Now it resonates as an indication that Jewish history—especially tragic Jewish history—might become a key weapon in Koenig’s literary arsenal.

After the Contra tour, Koenig traveled in Israel, and Modern Vampires of the City has songs that can be heard to be ponderings on the Jewish state, both political and philosophical. But the search for a reason to believe in a Jewish life is apparent in a cluster of songs, on what would be the entire second side of a vinyl album, songs 7 to 12, which features songs inside of songs, musical Russian dolls hidden inside sequences of musical and lyrical ideas.

For example: “Everlasting Arms.” The title is shared with a well-known 19th-century Protestant hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It is drawn from the very end of the five books, Deuteronomy 33:27, the Blessing of Moses. The translation used by the Hymnal Accompanist website, says: “The eternal god is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them.” It is a promise that Hashem will protect the Jewish people from their enemies, on his time, not human time.

Koenig’s “Everlasting Arms” begins with a lament. “I took your counsel, and came to ruin.” The speaker is shorn of hope: “I was born to live without you/ But I’m never gonna understand.”

The character is humming a song. At first, without a lyric sheet, I thought Koenig was drawing on his frequent invocation of Jamaican patois when he used the word “Irie,” which in reggae/Rastafarian jargon means a kind of ultimate grooviness, a state of oneness with the universe: Bob Marley’s happiest song might be his “Feelin’ Irie.”

But Koenig’s character wasn’t singing “Feelin’ Irie.” The line he sings is: “I hummed the ‘Dies Irie’ while you played ‘the Hallelujah.’ ”

“Dies Irie” means Day of Wrath. It is one of the most famous Gregorian chants. Visual representations show Jews and other “unbelievers” left behind, sent down to some very un-Torah-like fires, having been told, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, to cancel their subscription to the resurrection.

Or perhaps it’s our own Jewish “Dies Irie”—Unetaneh Tokef, the most somber High Holidays prayer. Or is the character humming yet a different tune: Penderecki’s 1967 “Dies Irie: The Auschwitz Oratorio,” a well-meaning example of the controversial subgenre of Shoah music? Or is it more meaningful than even those examples? What if the protagonist in “Everlasting Arms” is humming the “Dies Irie” section of Verdi’s “Requiem”? This is the piece of music used for one of the great acts of in-your-face defiance at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in the Czech Republic. The prison orchestra was led by Czech conductor and pianist Rafael Schacter. On June 23, 1944, there was a special concert for SS bigshots and visitors from the International Red Cross. The Nazis portrayed Theresienstadt as a Jewish cultural center and filmed activities there for propaganda. In particular, the “Dies Irie” and “Libera Me” sections of the requiem sent a message that their German captors would face the vengeance of Hashem on the Day of Wrath. Schacter died in 1945, death-marched at Auschwitz.

“I hummed the ‘Dies Irie’ while you played ‘the Hallelujah.’ ” Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from The Messiah was played at the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as 100,000 Germans cheered Hitler. Knowing that, the rest of “Everlasting Arms” falls into place: “If you’d been made to serve a master, you’d be frightened by the open hand,” Koenig sings. The open hand today, of course, is that ubiquitous piece of Jewish jewelry, known as the hand of Miriam. The open hand that has been interpreted as looking like the letter shin, a symbol of shaddai, or Hashem. In the song’s final lines, he wonders: “Could I be made to serve a master? Well, I’m never gonna understand, never understand.” It’s not certain whether the singer is wondering how humans could worship a Hitler, or whether he could acknowledge God as a master in the wake of the dead 6 million.

***

The intractable conflict between Palestinian and Jew is the vein running through the song “Finger Back,” which veers from speed rap to hymn. “Hit me with a canister that’s fired while the soldiers drive away,” Koenig sings. Is he talking about the IDF teams reacting to Palestinian rock throwers? He also sings: “Listen to the evidence exonerating me from being right.” That sounds like the stance of an admired relative of mine. Decades ago, he was an activist in Amnesty International; now he takes pride in paying good money to cheer a typically uncompromising speech given by Benjamin Netanyahu a year or so ago at an AIPAC event. We used to be able to talk about anything; now, Israel’s flaws are off the table.

Near the end of “Finger Back,” the scene changes via a spoken interlude. “Sing ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ ” the verse begins. But it’s a little joke: “Jerusalem … You know, the one at W. 103rd and Broadway?” It’s a falafel restaurant. There’s a story in the story here, full of sarcasm. The way Vampire Weekend tells it, “This Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop/ And why not? Should she just have averted her eyes and just stared at the laminated poster of the Dome on the Rock?” From a web search, it appears that the restaurant’s photographic logo is an iconic photo of Jerusalem as seen with the Dome of the Rock in the foreground. The world’s most problematic piece of real estate, it is where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven. To Jews, the Dome of the Rock stands upon the site of the Ark of the Covenant and the Second Temple. Which some Christian evangelicals believe needs to be rebuilt in order for Jesus to return.

The final verse, which takes us away from this scene, has great meaning and urgency for me. “Remembrances of holy days in Tarrytown and Rye/ I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.” These Westchester towns may be symbolic of a kind of upper-middle-class Jewish life; “Rye” is just an easier rhyme than “Scarsdale” or “Lawrence.”

I remember holy days in my upscale Jewish Long Island town, to which we moved to when I was 14. At my synagogue during the high-school years, the High Holidays meant “fashion show,” and there seemed to be a competition among the newly affluent women, married to sharp-elbowed garmentos or hard-boiled laundromat-chain owners, to introduce the latest fall styles at Rosh Hashanah. The absence of even a façade of piety made me feel grotesque.

I didn’t want to live like that, but I didn’t want to die. Yet I was USY Group president for a year. Nearly got fired by the Sisterhood when my friend Rocco Spagnuolo (aka “Rocky”) won the dance contest at the spring dance I organized, with music by my Italian-Amerian friends who had the area’s best garage band. They were one of the few with original material; I was the lyricist. Apparently, the Sisterhood was pissed, said they weren’t paying their synagogue dues so their Jewish daughters could dance with guys named Rocco to music played by guys named Frankie. But the rabbi, whom I considered a friend and mentor, had my back.

Wish I could say the same when I called him a few years later, when broke and near-broken after a divorce just a few years after the wedding at which he had officiated, I asked for a ticket to the High Holidays. “Wayne, if I do it for you, I’d have to do it for everybody!” said my rabbi, an influential Jewish Conservative leader. Really? Did everyone bring their copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to his house the day it came out so my friend, his daughter, could hear it while we smoked her Israeli hashish? Was someone going to rat out any act of generosity or kindness in the monthly newsletter? His solution to my faith crisis: If I wanted to join the congregation, maybe I could negotiate a reasonable fee with his secretary. He put her on the phone. I offered $100 just for Yom Kippur tickets; she laughed me off the phone, her ballpark being more like $1,000. The rabbi and I never spoke again; I didn’t go to a synagogue again until I remarried and my daughters started Hebrew school at a much less fancy place.

***

Could “the city with the weight upon it, city with the safety of a never weight upon it,” be Jerusalem? Though the title is “Worship You,” the lyric uses past tense: “We worshipped you/ Your red right hand.” I may be reaching here, but is the right hand that of Moses, which Hashem told him to raise to part the waters of the Red Sea? A miracle, yes, but does “red” right hand signify blood? As a songwriter who never wastes so much as a syllable, is Koenig thinking of “Song by the Sea,” (Exodus15:2-18) one of Judaism’s foundational songs? The Stone translation: “Hashem is Master of war … your right hand, Hashem, smashes the enemy … you blew with your wind … the mighty sank like lead in water.” Out of one song, perhaps many: Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” (about a stranger in a long black coat).

The questions come to a climax, and even a resolution of sorts in “Ya Hey.” In each verse, he addresses a powerful entity in a different way and the tribulations of surrendering to this power. It begins: “Oh, you saint, Zion doesn’t love you/ And Babylon don’t love you/ But you love everything.” Zion and Babylon are the two poles of Rastafarian/reggae thought that Vampire Weekend’s music can embrace, as most of its listeners understand. A sample from “Keep Cool Babylon,” a spiritual reggae song with a bomb-like bottom, by Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus, is used in the album’s opening track, “Obvious Bicycle,” which, as a concept, seems more Buddhist than Jewish.

But in this case, my money’s on Zion being Israel, not Rastafarian Ethiopia, though the meaning of the two are similar: the spiritual home. I’m not betting, but guessing, that Babylon, the rasta symbol for the corrupt, material world, could also be the Babylonian exile of the Jews and eventual diaspora after the destruction of the Temple.

After addressing “Ya Hey” as “you saint” and “sweet thing,” the singer addresses this power directly: “Oh, good God, the faithless they don’t love you/ The zealous hearts don’t love you/ And that’s not gonna change.” It sounds like spiritual defeat, a life without faith, no middle ground. But near the end of the song, before the final “fire and flames” chorus, there is a spoken-word section that offers a glimpse of hope through the miracle of a musical segue heard as our singer is “outside the tents of the festival grounds”—a familiar setting for Vampire Weekend.

My soul swooned as I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning ‘Israelites’ into ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’

It’s important that Koenig chose the word “you spinning,” rather than saying “the DJ spinning.” It is not a human act, but a divine intervention; he could be describing the effect of what an individual might have heard when God spoke to Moses and delivered the law, heard by all of Israel—among the tents on the festival grounds, down from Mount Sinai.

And what’s on these two discs Koenig mentions? It has been noted in interviews that Koenig’s father introduced him to reggae with the same album that made many of my fellow boomers fall in love with the Jamaican music: the 1972 soundtrack to the Jamaican film The Harder They Come. Next, to most Americans, came Bob Marley. Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” preceded these landmarks, a top-10 single in 1969, an infectious early reggae song of almost biblical suffering and oppression performed by Dekker and his band, the Aces, in a state of near euphoria. Without “Israelites,” maybe there’s no Marley, no Graceland, no Vampire Weekend.

The segue to the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” even sounds good in the living room—you can try this one at home. Despite the misogynistic lyrics—“You’re the kind of person you meet at certain dismal, dull affairs”—the visceral thrill of the music makes it one of the Stones’ greatest singles. The way I hear the song, there is a moment when Mick Jagger stands back, relents in his attack, and shows either compassion or identification with the frustrations of the character: “Nothing I do don’t seem to work/ it only seems to make matters worse.” That sounds much like the frustration of the protagonist stuck between the faithless and the zealous in “Ya Hey.”

But I also hear this as Ezra figuring things out; this is the one time on the album that he expresses ease and comfort. He is in his element, wandering among the tents, among his people, listening to the music his parents worshiped, and that he worshiped. His soul swoons with the awareness that soon he will be on the stage, singing his band’s music and the words he wrote, to tens of thousands. He is ready to play, with gratitude and grace, perhaps some humility, appreciating the gift of music that God, in whatever form, gave him, if he chooses to believe so.

***

The final song, “Young Lion,” is one minute and forty-five seconds, sung/recited by Batmanglij. The Lion of Judah is an elemental symbol for both Rastas and, of course, the 12 tribes. Has Koenig written a memo to himself? The song has six words, repeated four times: “You take your time, young lion.”

And one more thing: The album’s cover photo is from a New York Times photograph of the obscured city skyline on Nov. 24, 1966, the day of the worst smog in the city’s history. This atmospheric auguring of end days killed 169 people. The photograph represents to me “The Airborne Toxic Event” chapter, the environmental disaster rehearsed for, and that comes to pass, in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise. The protagonist is J.A.K. Gladney, a professor at the fictional College-on-the-Hill. Gladney is both progenitor and best-known representative of the academic field of Hitler Studies. Which shares office space with the similarly small popular culture department, American Environments, led by former sportswriter and apparent Jewish manic-depressive Murray Siskind. In her review of White Noise at the time in the New York Times, novelist Jayne Anne Phillips pulls a gem of a quote. “You’ve established a wonderful thing here with Hitler,” [Siskind] tells Gladney. “You created it, you nurtured it. … He is now your Hitler. I marvel at the effort. It was masterful, shrewd and stunningly preemptive. It’s what I want to do with Elvis.” In the uptempo 1950s-style rocker “Diane Young” on Modern Vampires of the City, Koenig’s voice is filtered electronically so that it sounds like Elvis Presley’s, and he accentuates the word “bay-bee,” as parodied by Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie. It sounds stunningly preemptive.

***

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Vampire Weekend’s Latest Album Is Ezra Koenig’s Guide for the Perplexed

On ‘Modern Vampires of the City,’ the frontman wrestles with Jewish questions, calling to mind a personal Kol Nidre