When this blog was first created, I wrote an article ranking the best songs on Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album. This dumb website has been around for a full year now, and it’s now moved off the launchpad of WordPress.com onto the slightly polluted but at least free atmosphere of WordPress.org. In honor of this tradition, I will be writing another Vampire Weekend Power Rankings article. This time, we’re talking about Contra.
There will be no massive monologue about Contra. It’s definitely the weirdest and least uniform of the three albums, and I would argue there is no major underlying theme like there is for Vampire Weekend and Modern Vampires of the City. In many ways, it sets itself as a contra-Vampire Weekend aesthetic album, and it sounds like it. In many ways, it is an incredibly inane collection of music (“Sweet carob rice cake /She don’t care how the sweets taste/Fake Philly cheese steak/But she use real toothpaste”). Other times, it’s a poetic reflection on alienation in the consumer culture of the United States of America. It’s also really, really weird.
Honorable Mention: “Giant” (iTunes only bonus track)
I had never heard this song before I started researching for this article. It’s not bad. It’s not as good as “Arrows” or “Ottoman” from the first album, but it’s a perfectly reasonable bonus track. Funnily enough, this song represents what most Vampire Weekend fans would conceive of when they think about Contra.
- Reference to California ✓
- Synth instrumentals that are really long ✓
- Lyrics that make absolutely no sense ✓
I can’t really pass judgment on it because I’ve only listened to it once, but I found it to be a pleasurable experience.
For this entire article, I will be creating a “Gibberish Index” to accurately estimate how much gibberish is in every song of Contra. Y’all are in for a real treat.
GIBBERISH INDEX: 15 percent gibberish
Honorable Mention: “California English Part 2” (iTunes only bonus track)
Let’s look at that checklist again:
- Reference to California ✓
- Synth instrumentals that are really long ✓
- Lyrics that make absolutely no sense ✓
So, I’d also never listened to this song before. It’s a mellow version of “California English”, while also sounding similarly annoying. Ezra just shouts “Oh, California” a bunch of times before deciding that, for kicks, he’d say some random words.
GIBBERISH INDEX: 85 percent gibberish
10. “California English”
This song is trash. I’m sorry. Do not fear, I have a long argument for why this song is bad.
- I do not think this song is bad because it’s a speed-rap of meaningless nonsense. There are plenty of art pieces, and this is almost certainly intended to be ‘art’, that are sometimes speed-runs of unintelligible nonsense that are quite good. “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg is good. Ulysses by James Joyce is good. OutKast is good.
- Sticking with the Joyce-ian analysis, I compare this song to Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. I have never read Finnegan’s Wake because it is an incomprehensible string of words that make no sense. “California English” is also an incomprehensible string of words that make no sense. It’s a particularly snobbish and pointless speed-rap of nonsense.
- “But”, you say, “they are intended to be confusing and nonsensical. It’s a comment on the uselessness and problems of language.” Nah. First off, at least James Joyce was a respected literary figure. This is an indie pop song masquerading as a literary statement on the deconstruction of Californian teen-speak that may or may not exist. Doesn’t that sound, by necessity, a bit ridiculous?
- Why should we even bother discussing those who commit heinous acts against the English language?
- Modern Vampires of the City has a song somewhat like this. It’s called “Worship You”. Instead of talking about aimless Californians, it’s an examination of religious exclusivity and the creation of societies based upon that society. Again, if you’re going to say a bunch of crazy stuff, at least make it somewhat interesting. Nobody cares about California girls, and when they do, they listen to Katy Perry.
GIBBERISH INDEX: 100 percent
“Holiday” is a completely harmless song. No one has ever really accused Vampire Weekend of being too serious and thus this is the indie pop equivalent of light music. There’s nothing inherently bad about this song. It’s also completely unremarkable. Of all the songs on the albums (not bonus tracks), this is easily the most forgettable Vampire Weekend song ever. It’s just boring, even if it isn’t about a vacation (it’s about war and occupations of various foreign countries, at times). It’s not even the best song released by an “indie” band in the last 25 years called “Holiday” and dealing with vacations (hello Weezer!).
That being said it has some ridiculous references that I’d like to highlight:
Holiday, still so far away
Our republic on the beach…
A vegetarian since the invasion
She’d never seen the word BOMBS
She’d never seen the word BOMBS blown up
To 96 point Futura
The first lyric, I assume, is a reference to this album cover by New Order. I think the second lyric is a reference to fonts. Yes, Ezra Koenig seriously thought making a reference to font size would be funny/insightful. There are reasons people dislike this band. Referencing fonts and vegetarians is a perfectly justifiable reason to dislike Vampire Weekend, in my opinion.
8. “Taxi Cab” by Vampire Weekend
I do not listen to this song very often, but it has the same mental effect as “Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” from the first album. Cello part is very cool. I always forget that this song exists.
GIBBERISH INDEX: 50 percent
This song has a tangential relationship to running, which makes it automatically decent. However, the song is basically the start of what happens in “Hannah Hunt” (the trip across America to escape liberal boredom, or disaster). I enjoy it because it’s light and preppy. It’s also perfect as slideshow background music. Other than that, it’s not really the best lyrical song on the album and doesn’t have as much weight as some other tracks. I sound like I’m describing wine.
This song is actually retroactively about Kirk Cousins! That’s why it’s a line that’s always running! The “I can feel it coming” is a reference to the game-ending and playoff-eliminating pick he threw against the Giants in Week 17. Just kidding, it’s about DeMarcus Cousins! Maybe it’s about a hypothetical fight between the two.
Anyway, I can totally see how a real, dark-jeans consuming fan of this band could flip out that “Cousins” could even be considered a better song than “White Sky”. It’s my list, get over it. This song just has so much energy and verve. It’s short, brutal and direct.
GIBBERISH INDEX: 23 percent
5. HOT TAKE ALERT “White Sky”
Well, this is the first of many controversial opinions in this article. Some people love “White Sky”. It was the 7th best song on Rolling Stone’s best songs of 2010, but that’s probably a negative rather than a positive in terms of “real” musical criticism (polishes glasses). But even Pitchfork liked “White Sky“, which means I’m really going off the reservation. Some people wear shirts with the lyrics emblazoned in an artsy circle. My problem with “White Sky”, for once, is not with the lyrics. The lyrics are actually quite poetic and make you feel like you are in a very hipster area of Brooklyn or Manhattan.
On the other hand, I argue that the musical backing is very strange and off-putting. It’s basically the only time I disagree with Rostam Batmanglij’s musical direction, assuming he put this particular arrangement together. The last minutes of the song are just Ezra’s voice swooning through a cosine graph of pitch for no apparent reason. The song has a bunch of annoying sound effects that take VW’s ripoff of Graceland by Paul Simon and run them through a Garageband filter. Actually, that’s essentially how the song was made. Rostam made a 30-second loop on his computer and Ezra Koenig created a melody around it.
I’m not that big of a fan. Compared to the delicacy of “I Think Ur a Contra” or “Taxi Cab”, “White Sky” is a mess musically. It’s the lyrics that make it, and Of course, I’ve heard people argue this is the best song on Contra. Realistically, all the songs between 7 and 1 could be considered the best on this album, sort of how there’s no difference between the 3rd and 9th-placed teams in the 2016-17 Big Ten Basketball season. I just consider “White Sky” to be more like Illinois then Michigan State.
(Author’s note: This section may have just been Tristan frantically trying to distance himself from his true self as a NYC hipster. As if he’s never been struck by the lyrics before…)
GIBBERISH INDEX: 1 percent
4. I Think Ur A Contra
Do you think ur a contra or something?
GIBBERISH INDEX: 99 percent
Ezra Koenig went from referencing kefir to horchata, which is fine, I guess. I have no grand opinions or thoughts on this song. I’ve never even tasted horchata before, let alone in December. As an album opener goes, it’s very memorable. It reminds me of sitting around doing nothing during winter track. It reminds me of the taco place in Tarrytown, NY, where horchata is served.
It’s impossibly highbrow. A brief recounting of the references and poetic license in the lyrics:
- “aranciata” is a flavor of San Pellegrino sparkling water. You cannot get a more upper middle class/upper class reference than that. But alas, Vampire Weekend is the anthem of the upper middle class (whether they intend it or not), after those classes are done with appropriating everybody else’s culture.
- Masada, of course, is the place where the First Roman-Jewish War ended in 73 AD. It’s now a historical monument for Jewish people everywhere.
- According to Rap Genius, the garden is a metaphor for the narrator’s relationship.
- The pincher crabs are a callback and flashforward to the beaches in other songs (Cape Cod and Hannah Hunt).
GIBBERISH INDEX: 17 percent
2. “Diplomat’s Son”
8 reasons why “Diplomat’s Son” is great:
- The whole song is a reference to The Clash, which automatically makes it legit.
- The weird rhythms in the instrumental section near the end.
- I’ve determined that parts of the song are a literal description of the summer I had as a lifeguard before my senior year of high school. “Looking out, at the ice cold water all around me.”
- “Cuz I’m gonna take it from Simonon
And then I’m gonna duck out behind them”
- The string section
- Joe Strummer!
- A full six minutes of Vampire Weekend!
- Rostam goes all out
GIBBERISH INDEX: 0 percent
1. “Giving up the Gun”
This song is absolutely ridiculous. Did you know it’s actually about the Meiji Restoration in Japan and the raw necessity of disappearing into the past in the face of extreme modernism? Actually, this song is about being a really good youth tennis player and then falling apart and giving up tennis, which really means it’s actually about Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (a book about a really good youth tennis player who falls apart mentally). Actually, this song is about the failure of relationships to fully materialize and longing for the past when love was simple.
So it’s a reference to sports, history, and music? Hey that sounds like a piece on Forget the Protocol!
Oh come on there’s a reference to Tokugawa in this song you have to like it.
Whatever the case, all of these themes are things I like to wax rhapsodically about, which means that yes, I enjoy “Giving Up the Gun” more than any other song on Contra. In addition to the lyrical depth, it’s also very catchy and is the most likely Vampire Weekend song to be played in public that’s not on the first album. In fact, while walking into Convocation at Northwestern, someone was playing this song on his/her speakers. As the chief demographic for peppy millennial bullshit, I was proud. Very proud.