“Diane Young” is a lovers-on-the-run song, the woman wild and limit-pushing and unimpressed by the prospect of dying young, the guy more cautious, fascinated and disapproving and having more fun than he thought was possible. It could be the soundtrack for the movie “Something Wild.” Except I think you’re supposed to understand it’s a fantasy, a projection: a young-ish man reaching for melodrama to understand the largeness of the emotions he’s feeling. I like the breathlessness of the vocal, and the twang/surf pulls of the music, and the line about torching a Saab like a pile of leaves. My first car was a Saab, and it put me through such hell I can’t count the number of times I wanted to set fire to it.
But what I love most is the way Ezra Koenig, Vampire’s Weekend’s lead vocalist and co-songwriter, uses the Elvis Presley “Baby, baby, baby” vocal quote to buttress his atmosphere of fun and danger. We forget that Elvis was, at one point, dangerous. I personally came to Elvis late: he’d always been a figure of kitsch to me, all bombastic arrangements and jumpsuits and judo moves. Then I became friends with a group of guys who were rockabilly fanatics, and they introduced me to the early stuff, which is astonishingly great. It was a dislocating experience, like going for years watching the Jerry Lewis telethon and then one year finding yourself laughing at Norm Crosby for real. It even made me listen harder to the later songs: his 1972 performance of “Always on My Mind” is magnificient.
Most of the rockabilly giants were psychopaths. They started at 80 miles per hour and then kept pressing the accelerator until the doors flew off. The songs took deranged as a given. Elvis was different: he could do deranged, but just as often was polite, gaining your trust before swooping into rockabilly madness. This song, “Baby Let’s Play House,” is most of all scary. It seems at first a song of reconciliation, the singer urging his partner to come back to him. There’s a loving playfulness to the way the singer toys with the syllables of the word “baby,” as though to remind the woman what a sweet guy he is. But then the “I’d rather see you dead” line comes along and you’re suddenly in the hands of that now-familiar Jim Thompson/Quentin Tarantino figure, the smiling sociopath. The teasing syllables take on a violent undertone, and you begin to wonder exactly what the singer has in mind when he talks about playing house.
“Diane Young” isn’t scary like that. But it does rock, and Vampire Weekend is a great band. The rest of the new “Modern Vampires of the City” album is strong out of the gate, but gets a little wander-y for me toward the end. I would have encouraged Ezra to wait a bit longer to have his mid-life crisis and enjoy himself for another album or two, and to not be so quick to use mortality as his metaphor for maturity. In other words, tell me what growing up feels like to you, absolutely, but maybe leave the death stuff to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for now.