Call it the evangelical comedown. We don’t talk about it often, but when we do, it’s a tough topic among my friends. I find to my surprise, in a city as diverse as Nashville, that apart from all superficial appearances to the contrary, we share a common bond of evangelical upbringing from which we diverge in several directions. Christian college, like a four year church camp, resulted for many of us in a decade-long comedown that unwound slowly toward various shades of agnosticism, atheism, or re-personalized orthodoxy. We’ve left countless churches that failed to make a safe space for hard questioning, some of us finally resting elsewhere, many of us nowhere. Largely, the safe space we’ve found has been our headphones — music that opens the imagination and lyrics that re-open the discussion. Tell someone that you listen to David Bazan, Mumford and Sons, or Derrick Brown, and suddenly you’re talking about more than music.
And now, with the release of their third record, Modern Vampires in the City, you can count Vampire Weekend among these.
Their music occupies a certain space carved out by J.D. Salinger, of those who were sincere before they became ironic and detached before they became (mostly) sincere again. Protagonists wrestle with their privileged status, over-think their most mundane problems, blindly deny the obvious, and ask all the wrong questions. To put it another way, Vampire Weekend sounds the way a Wes Anderson movie looks — highly curated, full of new things that seem old, and littered with dressed-down oddities and unlikely little details. They have Paul Simon’s penchant for world music appropriations, but meet them with the curiosity of bedroom pop experimenters and chops enough to acquit them of the damning stain of amateurism.
On their previous releases, Vampire Weekend and Contra, Vampire Weekend were merely tuneful, precise, and fun. They were a great listen, even on repeat, but they didn’t start or change conversations. Far from disposable, but not essential either. This time it’s different.
Without losing the wit and charm of their early work, the new record grapples with age, faith and mortality. Its natural gravity pulls in two directions at once — toward personal vulnerability and away from fear of the judgment. Some songs test relational boundaries (“Hannah Hunt,” “Step,” “Everlasting Arms”) while others rage at ticking clocks (“Obvious Bicycle,” “Don’t Lie”). Again and again, they venture where only tough conversations dare tread.
The songs on the second half of the album are where singer Ezra Koenig moves to the thematic heart of the record. Koenig gives us a challenging trio of songs (“Unbelievers”, “Worshipped You”, “Ya Hey”) that quibble with Abraham’s God while still accepting His story as somehow foundational. Is this a flight from faith, or a deeper engagement? “Through the flames, you won’t even say your name, only ‘I Am that I Am.’ But who could ever live that way,” Koenig bellows on “Ya Hey.”
“Worship You” rises to the intensity of accusation: “We worshipped you, your red right hand. Won’t we see once again? Who will guide us through the end?” If you catch God red-handed, the love affair is over, and you’re staring into the inevitable, who or what can comfort you now? If atheist apologists expect Christian agnostics to feel liberated, “Worship You” testifies to the surprising terror of it.
Direct second-person songs picking a bone with God are not new, nor are they unique to Vampire Weekend. David Bazan and a slew of artists in his wake have made it a lyrical linchpin, ever popular with exiled evangelical millennials. What sets Vampire Weekend apart here is the curiosity and optimism that steers them past the pompous gloom that makes songs about doubt such a drag. The vexing irony of so much “post-Christian” music is how preachy it is. But, questioning everything doesn’t have to be a crisis; it can actually be personable, fun, and even funny. To wake from reflexive acceptance and begin to engage deeply is highly exhilarating, and Vampire Weekend are among the first to capture what that sounds like.
So, with a wink and a nudge toward listeners on a similar trajectory, “Worship You” is a cry of annoyance with the Almighty. It’s a kind of love letter to disillusioned evangelicals everywhere. Rollicking acoustic guitars and quasi-martial drumming ripped straight from the Chris Tomlin playbook collide with a chorus one suffix away from raised hands and closed eyes, only the intent is the exact opposite. This is what it looks like to actually enjoy a crisis of faith.
If “Unbelievers”, “Through the Fire”, and “Worship You” are the brains of this record, “Step” is its heart. “Wisdom is a gift but you’d trade it for youth; age is an honor but it’s still not the truth.” Perhaps the flight from faith is only a growing pain of transformation, a necessary step to deciding what really matters. It’s worth remembering that frustration with the Almighty is not the same as outright rebellion. The God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses is far more tolerant of doubt, criticism, and our own anger with Him than He usually gets credit for, to say nothing of His Church. So it’s understandable if trading youth for wisdom seems like a raw deal, or if the rhythms of adulthood feel less true than the follies of the young. It’s in the daily compromise of relationship that these trade-offs start to make sense and take shape into a kind of faith that puts hard questions and big grievances to rest without necessarily answering them all the way. Every quarrel is not a divorce.
So it’s between the lines of “Step” and “Hannah Hunt” that the struggle to believe reveals its source – a flight toward vulnerability. “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah; there’s no future, there’s no answer,” Koenig whispers first, then jumps the octave and belts. A gentle travel diary gives way to the hurry of time, too fleeting to tolerate illusions. You’ve got to say it all before the opportunity is gone. It’s there, too on the most anthemic chorus of the record (situated over, you guessed it, more harpsichord) from “Don’t Lie”: “I want to know, does it bother you? The low click of a ticking clock? There’s a headstone right in front of you, and everyone I know.”
Death, of course, raises the inevitable question which faith tries so hard to answer. And on “Unbelievers,” Koenig recognizes the default answer (“We know the fire awaits unbelievers”) and offers a common, defiant response: “You and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train.” It’s as if he’s pleading with a God he no longer recognizes, saying “you forced me to disbelieve; now how can you punish me for it?”
The flight from faith is always a paradox, expressing anger with a God whose existence is newly doubted. In this case, our doubter emerges from his momentary crisis with, of all things, a guitar solo that sounds curiously like the old Quaker hymn “Gift to be Simple.”
What kind of resolution is that? Where does that leave him, or us? Doubt is not a binary that sorts us on opposite sides of a towering wall, but a cloud that touches us all eventually, from which we emerge only to someday re-enter. No one is exempt.
When the music stops, the questions linger. From the safety of headphones, the asking is possible, even exhilarating. So we think, we joke, and we venture to ask the hard questions out loud, even in the Church. Our quibbles with the almighty might unite us sooner or later. There is a way through the wilderness.
TagsAndrew Sullivan Apologetics Arts Atheism Barack Obama Belief Bible Book Review Books Capitalism Catholic Church Catholicism Charles Taylor Christian Christianity Christianity Today Church Conservatives Evangelicalism Evangelicals Facebook Faith God Gospel Coalition History Jesus Journalism Marriage Marvin Olasky Marxism Media Michele Bachmann New Sincerity New York Times Patheos Philosophy Politics Religion Religion and Spirituality Rob Bell Ross Douthat Same-sex marriage Secularism Theology United States