Vampire Weekend — “A-Punk”

Released: 2.28.08

Peak: #106

Ezra Koenig has one of those bright voices that compel critics to describe a songwriter’s work as “literate” when they think they mean literary but really mean middlebrow. The most common recent recipient of that shorthand praise is the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, whose lyrics reincarnate Sting as the most annoying kid in your grad seminar. Meloy’s pretensions might rankle less if his idea of the “literary” didn’t end circa Kipling, or his poetic sensibility could distinguish between murder ballads and bad Swinburne impressions, or his fans didn’t love him for those pretensions.

Koenig’s not that sort. Though he gets a lot of Paul Simon comparisons (because, you know, Graceland) his writing style is more akin to Steely Dan. Their sensibilities differ– Columbia and Bard are different worlds, and it sure ain’t the ’70s out there–yet like Becker and Fagen before him, Koenig surrounds a surfeit of detail with an absence of context for lyrics that are all foreground and no background. So a song like “Oxford Comma” takes the shape of a dorm-room argument, flitting trivially from mentions of Dharsalama to Jacobean tragedy to “Get Low,” but never clues us in to the real substance of the dispute. Why would you care about something dumb like that?

Similarly, “A-Punk” is structured as shaggy dog story about “Johanna” and “His Honor,” giving the appearance of narrative without the causal connections. Uprooted imagery — a flood of raincoats glimpsed through a city window, a fairytale ring split in two, a trove of turquoise harmonicas — contrasts with prosaically evocative place names like Sloan-Kettering and Washington Heights. Similarly, those wafting flute-like synth parts offer a faux-pastoral contrast to the spazzy post-ska upbeat and plucked one-world guitar. It’s all very Imagist, no? But Koenig crams his fancy pants poetic technique so snugly into this tunefully trifling musical casing, you could almost mistake “A Punk” for some hungry, forgotten new-wavers of yore scratching for a hit. He’s that sort.

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