The Thrilling Uncoolness of Vampire Weekend’s ‘Harmony Hall’

Among the band’s first singles in six years is a tribute to jam bands and ravers that sounds a warning against groupthink.

Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend
Robb D. Cohen / AP

The video posted for “Harmony Hall,” one of Vampire Weekend’s first two new songs in six years, could have been a five-minute ick. Pill bugs wiggle, moths flap and twitch, a worm inches along, and a big hairy spider scurries across the screen in jump-scare style. But the critters are shot in such crisp HD, presented against a white background, that their anatomies appear as things of beauty, like in Planet Earth. It’s all edited in such a way, speeding and slowing with the music, that the insects seem to dance. Mostly cute, only a little creepy.

Which is kind of like how “Harmony Hall,” among the first great thrills of 2019 pop, approaches its musical influences. Ezra Koenig’s dewy voice is joined by two varieties of music that some members of his notionally hip fanbase might otherwise cringe at. One is the guitar tones of jam bands: the Grateful Dead, first, but also less-cherished descendants like Rusted Root. The other is the rave-influenced 1990s pop—breakbeats, gospel pianos, wind-in-the-hair cooing—that included George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90,” The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.” These are not fashionable touchstones. They’re even, to use a nebulous, zeitgeist-contingent term, uncool.

Koenig’s band has long reclaimed the uncool. The New York act’s 2008 debut arrived on a wave of divisive hype because, in an indie scene born of countercultural DIY, they were proudly preppy. Relatedly, they unearthed out-of-vogue 1980s rock sounds—Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac. The pastiche operated on two levels, earnest and ironic. The proper nouns on their mood board (“Hyannis Port,” “Darjeeling,” “Egyptian Cotton”) were presented lovingly, with crystalline melodies, sprightly rhythm, and scholarly wit. But the nouns were also objects of critique. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” wriggled with discomfort at its own appropriations (“feels so unnatural / Peter Gabriel too”). The fun-fussy wordplay of  “Oxford Comma” actually formed an essay against pretentiousness.

Over the subsequent two albums, 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, the routine deepened as Koenig pondered adulthood. When the gorgeous “Step” interpolated both Pachelbel’s “Canon”  and the Oakland rappers Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl,” Koenig’s crossword-clue-like lyrics (“Angkor Wat, Mechanicsburg, Anchorage, and Dar es Salaam”) acknowledged their own tryhard-ness. In place of a bratty attempt at fashioning an identity through the accumulation of trivia, Koenig hinted he’d now try to engage with universal experiences: “I was a hoarder, but girl, that was back then.” Which wasn’t to say the powerful language of cultural reference would be banished. “I’m ready for the house,” he sang in tender tones, seeming to welcome settling down, before this: “Such a modest mouse.”

Now, for “Harmony Hall,” the most blatant reference is to Vampire Weekend itself. “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die,” goes part of the chorus, which is also a line from “Finger Back,” off the band’s Modern Vampires of the City. On that album, the lyric culminated a Jewish-Muslim Romeo and Juliet fable, but here it’s in service of an even more elemental story. Though Koenig’s lyrics are as cryptic as they’ve ever been, “Harmony Hall” seems fundamentally about communal experience. As Jerry Garcia guitars and Madchester percussion juxtapose joy with joy, one of the main refrains describes the miracle of music: “Anger wants a voice, voices wanna sing / Singers harmonize ’til they can’t hear anything.”

A hint of danger’s in that line, though, and Koenig is not simply out to celebrate shared identity. The name “Harmony Hall,” Koenig has said, doesn’t refer to the Columbia University dorm building of the same name (shocking, given that Koenig writes about his alma mater a lot). But maybe it refers to the failed utopian commune. Or maybe it’s, as some have suggested, a synonym for “echo chamber.” “Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified,” Koenig sings in the chorus—a nod to how great institutions can be corrupted, about how blended voices can be hijacked by the serpent. A political meaning here is plain.

It might be no coincidence that the songs of the “ravers and hippies” Vampire Weekend now draw on, as Andy Cush at Spin points out, “served as the theme music for a wide-eyed utopian counterculture, gathering thousands of revelers in fields and warehouses, briefly attempting to enact a world that’s better than the one outside.” Perhaps that idealism and its failures explain the lasting tinge of corniness around such sounds, which unlike, say, synthpop or Fleetwood Mac, have not been yet reprocessed by the mainstream’s nostalgia industries. As “Harmony Hall” rides its groove and recycles its chorus into the five-minute mark, the crispness of its sound dulls, and there’s a sense of excess, of mess. The song is a party, but one that carries a warning.