XLTake a simple, relatively formulaic guitar, bass and drums construction. Adds subtle keys and collegiate vocals. Tacks on an occasional baroque string flourish. And end up with what? Well, with the keys transformational steps in the process mired in the cloudy confusion that obscures the reasons for all great pop music, you end up with the best album of 2008. Nothing to it.
It couldn't have been any other way. No other album dominated my headphones like this one did, or wrapped up my consciousness in its deceptively simple folds. I first encountered Vampire Weekend late by blogger standards (having missed out on the blue CD-R and attendant hype), but early enough by normal person standards. Some time after Christmas last year, I saw the video for A-Punk and thought it was by-numbers NME bollocks. Then, after returning to college, I was handed a promo copy of the album, a white disc in a clear plastic sleeve. Thanks XL for splashing out there.
I was expecting it to be bad, to be honest. I convinced myself it was for a little while. But it's impossible to resist it. It's insidious. Once I'd heard it twice it would not leave the jukebox in my head. Waking up in the morning I would hear the harpsichords of 'M79', disembodied, and be unable to remember where I knew them from. Walking down the street, I'd tap the syncopations of the drum pattern in 'Mansard Roof' once it kicks in, subconsciously.
But the key song was one that doesn't sound a whole lot like the quintessence of the album - it doesn't have African rhythms, fruit-flavoured keys or particularly referential lyrics. Walcott. Sounds like the Walkmen if they'd had a wash. Perfect pop song, perfect length, perfect builds and breakdowns.
Then I saw it. It's like that all over. I listened again and again, so that it was whole verses, with the lyrics lodged in my memory, that would appear when I was reading newspapers or playing games or walking through college corridors. It became a daily thing for me, one of the few bandnames that survived the initial wearing-off of novelty on my mp3 players.
If they were slipping out of my consciousness towards the end of the year, the gig brought them right back again, and the fact of interviewing them forced me to look at them in different ways, to question different angles, to probe and see what happens. Doing a degree in English literature at the same time as writing for an indie music magazine probably leads to unnecessarily prosaic and theoretical approaches to things. But whatever.
I asked them about it, they told me what they thought, and I really enjoyed hearing it. It changed what I heard again. It became more African just because people elsewhere were talking about it being African. But the interview challenged that too:
"I think the idea that you can only appreciate African music by associating it somehow with poverty is just as ridiculous as saying you can only listen to African music if you’re some rich safari hunter. It really is nothing to do with it. I hope that people who listen to African music, just because they like the sound of it, would also take it upon themselves to be a moral, ethical person. But, you know, those are two separate things. I find that the people who get angry about an American band being interested in African music aren’t offering any alternative. They tend to be the people who exoticise African music, and ghettoise it, as something that can only be appreciated in this particular way."
And as if to pull things back out of the theory and back to the real world, they play a new song that sounds like Strawberry Jam and a cover of a Fleetwood Mac song at the gig. As if to say "we are a pop band, stop over-thinking it".
As I listen to it tonight, it's no less exciting than it has been in the year I've heard it. It might be, yet again, an overly subjective choice for best album, but I know other people think it too. And there's no reason to deny that I've listened to it most and enjoyed it more than anything else, more cerebral or more wrought, put out in 2008. I had it clamped to my ears for 12 months. When it wasn't, it was bouncing around my head. It even made me go to see a band from the Congo with my afro-enthusiast friend. That's something.