Very pleased to bring you the following contribution from Josh Encinias, the title being a play on this classic from The Onion.
There is much to be said of Vampire Weekend’s new album, Modern Vampires of the City. Carl Laamanen wrote an excellent review for the site, and I want to follow-up with thoughts on the album viewed through the interpretive lens of the character Huckleberry Finn.
Vampire Weekend’s lead singer Ezra Koenig and Huck are both known as curious explorers of culture. Ezra was born in New York City and grew up in a modest, middle-class New Jersey suburb. His lyrics, which reference subjects such as drinking horchata and shopping for designer clothes, reflect an outsider’s perspective on the experiences he had studying alongside wealthy classmates at Columbia University. While in college Ezra even wrote a blog about exploring different cultures and religions in NYC and abroad.
Huck Finn needs less of an introduction. Mark Twain’s most famous creation was “born and raised” plain white trash. He ran away from home to live in the world, where he learned how to hustle from royalty, and made friends with a slave named Jim. Huck may not have been rich, but brushing shoulders with a slave was still well below his station. You could almost say Twain’s novel is a precursor to Ezra’s “Internet Vibes”.
As Carl and others have noted, Modern Vampires in the City finds Ezra contemplating, rather unexpectedly, matters of religion and faith. The song that has gotten the most attention along these lines is the second track on the record, “Unbelievers”. Several critics came to the easy conclusion that the lyric: “Girl, you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train” meant the singer had accepted a fate in Hell. But coming as it does at the beginning of the record, shouldn’t we wait to hear the full story before coming to any conclusions? I think so.
When I first heard the song, I was immediately reminded of a line from Huck Finn, where Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”. Read in context, we know this was how Huck disassociated himself from the culture’s concept that being fated for hell was determined by his performance in and for the culture.
Huck couldn’t ‘do right’ in the eyes of his world, so he chose to be ‘immoral’, which in his case meant freeing Jim from slavery. Similarly, Ezra (and maybe his girlfriend) can’t be good enough to receive Grace (“Want a little grace, but who’s going to say a little grace for me?”), so his unbelief becomes a type of absolution. In both cases a class of people deem the protagonist’s choices to be immoral. In hindsight we know Huck was right, and maybe Ezra shows us that being an ‘Unbeliever’ (when the pressure of your faith is based on your goodness) is a better option than clawing your way to God. Cue Ezra talking to the NME:
“Something that I started thinking about on the last record (was) how much I can’t relate to any ways of thinking that divide the world into two distinct parts,” he continued. “Whether that’s atheism versus religion or Republican versus Democrat, there’s all these false dichotomies in the world that can be very confusing when you’re trying to make up your mind about how you feel about a situation… Even in that song, the idea of being an unbeliever can mean almost anything because everybody is an unbeliever to somebody else. It doesn’t matter how fervently you believe in your faith, there’s always going to be another faith that calls you an unbeliever. In any sort of multicultural society, it’s something that people have to grapple with and figure out.”
Ezra’s references to Republicans versus Democrats and multicultural society makes it more likely that the song is about choosing between different religions in America, and his recognition that he can’t show perfect fidelity to his choice.
Maybe this is a stretch – but it sounds to me as though Ezra wants it all. He wants love and pain, grace and regret. He wants to embrace his humanity, and approach the divine. In “Unbelievers” his infernal fate is the result of no one giving him the grace he needs to move closer to God. And later, in “Ya Hey”, we’re met with the lyrics: “And I can’t help but feel that you see the mistakes but you let it go, Ya hey…”. It turns out that God himself (or Ya hey) moves Ezra closer to himself, and he does it by his grace. The problem is that you and I invariably reject that grace.
Grace is, of course, what many of us would say makes Christianity unique. Grace is God’s unmerited favor toward his created, fallen humans. God wills himself to man because God loves man. Maybe down the line man will learn to love God in return, but such love is not a precondition for salvation (1 John 4:19). The good news is, our inability to accept grace does not keep that grace, and God himself, from us.
In light of the album’s lyrics and God’s good news, it make senses that Ezra refuses to renounce his relationships or doubts or sin in order to reach God. Because he can’t! Just like us, he cannot unbecome himself to become himself. By a strange paradox God brings us into himself, and there we find out we are saved, find our purpose, and our identity.
When Ezra sings “I hummed the Dies Irae as you played the Hallelujah” doesn’t that sound like the cosmic constancy? We go about our day decrying and propagating our personal Day(s) of Wrath. All the while God plays the Hallelujah Chorus over our every move. We are sinful and forgiven alike. For me, this record is a 43 minute sigh of relief.
Like all lasting works of art, Modern Vampires of the City points us beyond our confusing and often arbitrary cultural conditioning, whether it be 1884 or 2013, to something more universal: the constants of human experience and the hope of God’s grace in the midst of it.
Huck, for his part, realizes that, “Just because you’re taught that something’s right and everyone believes it’s right, it don’t make it right”, just before deciding whether or not to emancipate poor Jim. He does, of course, but only after a drawn-out deliberation with Tom Sawyer about whether to simply lift the bedpost that’s holding Jim’s chains or saw his leg off – for the thrill of it. Mark Twain noted that despite Huck’s enlightenment, “There are many humorous things in the world, among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” Our needs and motives, in other words, get tangled up in trying to follow God’s Law.
So we continue to sing, wounded, with Ezra:
I took your counsel and came to ruin
Leave me to myself, leave me to myself
To which God sings back:
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)