In 2011, I made up a rubric for assessing the output of musical artists. I called it The Five-Albums Test. Well, I didn’t exactly “make it up.” I took something that music fans were already doing informally, put an uncreative name on it, and published a column about it on the internet. That is what they call “music journalism.”

It works like this: You take an artist, you look at their discography, and you judge whether they have put out five consecutive “great” albums. That’s it. That’s the methodology. But why five consecutive great albums? Because it’s more than two consecutive great albums (an impressive achievement), three consecutive great albums (a triumph most artists don’t come close to accomplishing) or four consecutive great albums (true “hall of fame”-level performance). If you have five consecutive great albums, you simply are one of the legends of your life and times.

(You can also be one of the greats if you don’t have five consecutive great albums. Some of the most iconic artists of all time don’t have five consecutive great albums. I could elaborate but that would quickly derail this column from the central premise. You can read more here and here, though I’m not sure I still agree with a lot of what I wrote. Direct any questions/comments/admonishments to 2011 me.)

To pass The Five-Albums Test, you need a lot of elements to fall exactly into place. Some are in your control, but many are not. First, you must achieve a level of success that enables you to make at least five albums of any quality. (Making five consecutive bad albums is, from a longevity perspective, also an incredible feat.) Second, you need enough great songs — 40 at minimum, though you are skirting EP territory if you don’t have at least 50 — to fill out five great albums. Third, these albums must demonstrate an artistic progression (i.e. “each one is different enough from the others”) that at the same time fortifies an instantly identifiable musical identity (i.e. “each one is similar enough to the others”).

This seemingly contradictory magic trick, of course, is the hardest to execute. But none of this stuff is easy. It’s not enough to merely be a genius songwriter and elite musician. You need a bit of luck to help maneuver the inevitable ups and downs of the music industry, popular taste, and the vagaries of late-capitalism.

It is a test designed for most people to fail.

As a music critic who is fascinated above all else by discographies, I often ask musicians about how they build and shape their bodies of work. When you make an album, do you think about how it fits with your other albums? Do you think of your albums as being in conversation with one another? How concerned are you with how your overall discography looks? I find these questions endlessly fascinating. The musicians I speak with, however, aren’t always as interested. Some musicians like to analyze their own work, but the majority do not. The unspoken worry, I think, is that thinking too much about these things might lead to crippling self-consciousness. There’s also the sticky matter of luck. When there’s so much out of your control, why worry about it?

But in my experience, there is one particular musician who has thought about these questions more — possibly much more — than I have: Ezra Koenig.

On the press tour for Vampire Weekend’s latest album — their fifth — Only God Was Above Us, Koenig has focused mostly on the record’s musical and thematic narratives. As you might have read: This is the “noisy” VW LP, the one with distortion in place of the impeccably clean guitar lines that have defined their aesthetic since the 2008 self-titled LP. Lyrically, Only God Was Above Us is a “New York City album” that ponders the state of the world with an evolving worldview that moves from anger to acceptance.

Peruse any article about OGWAU, and you will see these points asserted and reiterated. But I’m more curious about the glancing comments from Koenig regarding his conception of Vampire Weekend’s overall catalog. In one interview, he listed “patron saints” for each of the band’s albums — Paul Simon for the self-titled, Joe Strummer and Sublime for Contra, Leonard Cohen for Modern Vampires Of The City, and the Grateful Dead and Phish for Father Of The Bride. For OGWAU, he was even more specific, pointing to the 1997 co-headlining tour by Rage Against The Machine and the Wu-Tang Clan, which reads as semi-jokey shorthand for the ’90s crossover of alt-rock and hip-hop that informs the record’s scruffily metallic, urban/suburban sound.

In another interview, Koenig managed to get even more granular, revealing a four-quadrant chart that he made after Father Of The Bride plotting out the vibes for each VW record. One axis was PREPPIE and HIPPIE, and the other was GOTH and SUNSHINE. According to this chart, the first two albums were PREPPIE/SUNSHINE, Modern Vampires was PREPPIE/GOTH, and Father Of The Bride was HIPPIE/SUNSHINE. That leaves HIPPIE/GOTH for Only God Was Above Us, a not-entirely-inappropriate descriptor of the album’s feel.

For skeptics, this level of creative calculation is indicative of an overbearing perfectionism that can be hard to take. But as a music critic, I find that it adds another layer of enjoyment to Vampire Weekend’s records. I appreciate that Ezra Koenig, along with being a songwriter and record-maker, is also a music critic of sorts. It’s just that he applies that analytical part of his brain to the creation of music. His records are, among other (much more important) things, thinkpieces that riff on sets of ideas, styles, and signifiers. And they are organized inside of Vampire Weekend’s discography like chapters in an evolving book.

I witnessed this side of Koenig first hand when I spoke with him in early 2020, right before lockdown, for a New York Times Magazine article. We ended up chatting for 90 minutes, which meant that the majority of the interview never made the 1,200-word piece. The most pertinent bits about Father Of The Bride made the cut, but my favorite parts of our talk were the nerdiest digressions about Vampire Weekend’s catalog.

“There is, straight-up, a decent chunk of people who really fucked with our first album and thought we fell off after that,” he said at one point. “Like, ‘That first album is fun, second one eh, third one ugh.’ These people are generally not major music critics. Or people who spend a lot of time on message boards. But these people exist because I’ve met them tons of times.”

It’s interesting to consider this population that looks at Vampire Weekend like The Strokes, with Vampire Weekend as their Is This It, a one-and-done emblem of a specific, fleeting moment. I imagine there is another subgroup that carries this analogy one step further, with Contra in the role of the underrated and possibly “secretly better” Room On Fire-esque follow-up. But at least inside of VW’s fanbase, The Strokes get left behind with the third album, Modern Vampires Of The City, the consensus “masterpiece” in the catalog. What struck me in our interview was Koenig’s suggestion that MVOTC was consciously constructed as a “serious statement” to woo critics, in the manner of other famous third-album “breakthroughs” like Born To Run, London Calling, and OK Computer.

“We’ve mostly gotten good reviews our whole career. But our first album was controversial. The Village Voice ran opposing reviews,” he said. “People wanted to fight about us in a way that very similar bands didn’t quite get. So, there’s a part of me that wondered what it would feel like to make a record that seemed to be a real crowd-pleaser in that world. And to some extent that was the third album.”

Anyone who disputes that Vampire Weekend passes The Five-Albums Test — for the record, I think they pass with flying colors — will likely have the most reservations with Father Of The Bride, the shaggy 18-track effort from 2019 informed by jam bands and Southern California — “HIPPIE/SUNSHINE” — that put off listeners hooked on the modernist, pop-forward approach of the first three records. I am a fan of FOTB, in no small part because I am also a fan of jam bands and music with Southern Californian vibes. The crunchiness of that record is way up my alley. But for now, I’m less concerned with laying out a critical/aesthetic argument than I am with considering how FOTB fits with the other Vampire Weekend records. When I spoke with Koenig, he implied that the polarization it inspired was practically by design.

“The album format on some level, it can get old really fast. So you have to always find ways in which to break new ground,” he told me. “When you break new ground it’s going to delight some people, alienate others. That’s the nature of the world.”

With VW’s fourth record, their first in six years, some kind of let down was inevitable given how acclaimed their previous effort was. The third LP was a landmark for the long, fading tail of 2000s indie rock, an era that finally more or less wrapped in 2013. By 2019, VW was far removed from anything happening in the vanguard of indie or pop music. Most groups in their position would have raced to keep up. But with Father Of The Bride, Koeing leaned into that separation, zagging as far as possible from the zeitgeist’s zig. His band was now culturally out of step, but on purpose. In that way, FOTB is explicitly the anti-MVOTC, though it did eventually win a Grammy and do fine with most critics. Still, Koenig acknowledged Vampire Weekend’s “proudly washed” image by promoting FOTB as a de-facto solo effort, leaving his bandmates out of press photos. As he recently related to The Guardian, “I just had a feeling that going into the fourth album, seeing a picture of three guys in their mid-30s was kind of like: ‘This is gonna look like damaged goods.’”

Again, that level of self-awareness is bound to annoy those who believe that artists shouldn’t think of their output in terms of critical or public response. But this conception of where each VW record falls is ultimately as thoughtful and smartly constructed as the music, and that carries over to the fifth album.

As Koenig himself I’m sure knows, there are two kinds of “great” fifth albums. The first is the “level up” fifth album, in which a long-running band hits their critical and/or commercial stride several years into their career. Famous examples include: David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Prince’s 1999, R.E.M.’s Document, U2’s The Joshua Tree, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Metallica’s “Black Album,” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

Only God Was Above Us is not that kind of record. Like Koenig suggested, the first album will probably always define the group in the popular consciousness. (“A-Punk” is their most streamed track on Spotify by multiple factors.) And Modern Vampires Of The City has a lock on being the canonical “capstone to the indie era” pick. OGWBU therefore is the second kind of “great” fifth record, the “simultaneously different and similar” album. The sort of LP that is, paradoxically, a career summation that also points forward.

(Three other “simultaneously different and similar” fifth albums that come to mind are extremely un-Vampire Weekend-like: The Who’s Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy, and Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I’m also tempted to put The National’s High Violet in this category, though it might actually be the first kind of “great” fifth record.)

How does this apply to Vampire Weekend? The application of distortion immediately sets Only God Was Above Us apart from the other VW albums. In 10 years, there will be no question from which record “Hope” or “Capricorn” or “Mary Boone” derives. (Whereas the tracks from Vampire Weekend and Contra, in Strokes-like fashion, kind of blend together.) OGWAU is definitely different. At the same time, the lyrics immediately ground the LP in an East Coast milieu that was seemingly abandoned after the beloved third-album masterpiece. It sounds like the disaffected narrator of Modern Vampires Of The City with 11 more years of wisdom. OGWAU is definitely similar. HIPPIE/GOTH-ness has been achieved. The album-catalog-as-book, once again, evolves.

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