During a concert last fall at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Vampire Weekend diverged from their own material exactly once, covering Blur's Dadaist jock jam "Song 2."
The choice was a surprisingly big, crunchy move for a band whose sound typically veers toward the airy and nuanced. More than a mere cover, though, it was a telling acknowledgment of Vampire Weekend's aspirations for itself. The Barclays Center show was a hometown gig in Brooklyn, perhaps the only market where the young group can headline on the professional-sports-arena scale. As the band raced through the direct anthem, they seemed to suggest they want to grow, to get bigger, to reach still more people, just as Blur had done with "Song 2."
In an interview last year, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig acknowledged Blur's influence. "Damon Albarn has always struck me as a good [role] model," he said. "He does what he wants, participating in various projects without coming across as overly eager or anything."
In fact, the similarities between Blur in the '90s and Vampire Weekend at present are striking, from their image and eclectic interests to their smart pop precariously balanced at the edge of the musical mainstream.
Both bands are sharp, memorable and cerebral, led by photogenic frontmen who get more attention than shier dudes (Rostam Batmanglij and Graham Coxon, respectively) arguably more vital to creating each group's distinct sounds. Both are thematically concerned with issues of class, too, even if Koenig's lyrics and croon are gentler than Albarn's. In fact, the bands' images are adjacent, sitting chummily in the thick Venn diagram overlap between "posh" and "preppy." If Noel Gallagher is aware of Vampire Weekend's existence at all, it's easy to imagine him describing them as "fookin' students."
Those similarities run beyond image; they seem engrained in how Koenig and Albarn think of music. Albarn's biggest post-Blur success, for instance, has come as the bandleader for the cartoon hip-hop squad, Gorillaz. Koenig has yet to appear alongside any actual rappers but his hip-hop affinity is well documented. He praised Lil Jon as a truth-teller on the band's first hit, "Oxford Comma." The more recent single "Step" even lifts words and a bit of melody from '90s Oakland rap crew Souls of Mischief's "Step to My Girl." One-off collaborations such as Koenig's appearance on Major Lazer's "Jessica" recall Albarn's late '90s attempts to cozy up to eclectic dance producers Fatboy Slim and Dan the Automator.
Albarn and Koenig have been partially defined by their relationship to African pop music, too, but they've embraced that influence at very different developmental points. Albarn only became truly world-music oriented once he left Blur, coming to African sounds as something of a middle-aged, well-moneyed tourist. He's made multiple charity records, allowing him to co-mingle with musicians from Mali and the Congo and broker collaborations with Fela Kuti's drummer Tony Allen. At the height of Blur's popularity, however, his attempts at shaking his own overwhelming Englishness were no more exotic than the lessons of Pavement and Sonic Youth.
Vampire Weekend's African pop influences arrived with the band itself, casually pre-baked into their pep. The first two Vampire Weekend records earned copious Graceland comparisons, fanning flames of scorn against snide, college-kid colonialists. But the casual way Vampire Weekend utilized African sounds never totally felt like Paul Simon's showy mid-life crisis, at least not as much as Albarn planting himself in front of squads of African musicians. The difference appears largely generational: In the Internet age, it doesn't require a soul-searching globe trot to hear wide swaths of foreign music. The search for exotica doesn't end with albums by Afro-pop inspired Westerners like Talking Heads or Orange Juice; their inspirations are a quick Google search away.
It's not so odd that Koenig's band might use global pop sounds as a formative influence, rather than a mid-career departure. What might Blur have accomplished with bit torrents and Spotify?
If Vampire Weekend's course continues to track Blur's lifespan, it's possible that Vampire Weekend is now at their creative (if not popular) peak, analogous to Blur in the middle of their smooth Parklife and The Great Escape stride. On last year's Modern Vampires of the City, Koenig's band became the most elegant indie-pop group of their era. It wasn't a huge departure from their early stuff, but the Kwassa Kwassa cribbing and Hamptons-core kidding had mostly disappeared, swapped for sparkling piano and dark, existential empathy.
After finding success, the supposed rich college kids—as they were once lambasted—seemed surprisingly more open and warm, more welcome to the challenges normal folks face. Koenig's lyrics, for instance, repeatedly fretted over the cruel passage of time.
Perhaps he's haunted that the pinnacle of an impressive career might soon transition into something less desirable, some far-off day on the wrong side of 40 when he'll issue an album like the recent Everyday Robots, the first record released under the name Damon Albarn.
It's not a terrible record so much as it is underwhelming and numbing. Like most everyone else in alt-pop, Albarn struggles to dramatize the erosive effects of the world's glut of casually integrated technology. Antiquated hardware actually trips up the material, as nearly every song hobbles along with the same gimpy drum machine beat. Albarn presents a grayscale version of his former handsome-gent charm. Absent charismatic collaborators and restorative genre dabbling, Albarn seems at last exhausted. If that's an eventual destination for Koenig, it's likely not one he's overly eager to reach.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bloody gumption."