Ezra Koenig was drawn to the cover photo of Contra because of its vagueness and candid nature.
The eyes staring back at you from Vampire Weekend’s second record are so striking, so intentional, that it’s fair to assume the Polaroid was taken for the sole purpose of the album. But in fact, the photo is older than Koenig himself, one he found by browsing the image hosting service Flickr. “The ambiguity of her age and expression made me feel like she was on the cusp of something, which really matches the vibe of the new album,” the band’s frontman explained. “Wrapped up in her expression is this question: ‘How is she feeling?’ Maybe she wasn’t even really sure at the time.” Though Contra just turned 10 years old, the simple Polo shirt and gold hoops of its cover girl feel ageless, and the album itself remains an enduring touchstone of indie rock that’s become a considerable classic itself.
But Vampire Weekend didn’t need to make another iconic record. Their 2008 self-titled debut spawned their first certified gold single, “A-Punk,” further popularized by soundtracks to films like Step Brothers and video games like Guitar Hero 5. In the expansive realm of art-rock acts to emerge around the same time, Vampire Weekend‘s blend of afropop and chamber pop wasn’t just an act of pandering to the same kids who fawned over bands like Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective; it was a bunch of New York prepsters paving new roads for indie music.
Vampire Weekend – ‘Holiday’ (official video)
Though their debut was plenty brave, Contra saw Vampire Weekend introduce a wider pool of influences and exercise new sounds. “California English” utilized an unlikely dash of Auto-Tune, while tracks like “Run” and “White Sky” implemented electronic instrumentation that was previously unheard of from them. The “Miserlou“-approximating guitar trills of “Cousins” are the band at their most chaotic. They sampled British rapper M.I.A. for the bouncy “Diplomat’s Son,” only to follow it up with the closing “I Think Ur a Contra,” a peaceful, heart-wrenching breakup ballad that remains one of Vampire Weekend’s most stunning songs to date.
Vampire Weekend – ‘Cousins’ (Official Music Video)
Recently, music journalist Evan Rytlewski tweeted a metric he uses to estimate a band’s greatness—which he calls the “Strokes test”—that’s had my brain rattling for days: “Would people still care about this band if their best album did not exist?” Vampire Weekend were one of the first bands I thought of who’d pass the test with flying colors. They’re one of those bands whose “best album” will be hotly debated for years to come; some favor the new-band rootsiness of their self-titled, while others, like myself, tend to lean towards the polished atmosphere of their 2013 masterpiece, Modern Vampires of the City. A minority delight in the sheer amusement of their comeback double album, last year’s Father of the Bride.
The only certainty of Contra is that it solidified this gang of Columbia grads as not one-time successes, but as torchbearers of indie rock that’ll continue to be idolized and imitated countless times, decades on. Years after “A-Punk” stops autoplaying on our car stereos, Contra serves as indication of a band qualified to stay for both a good time and a long time.
Vampire Weekend – I Think Ur A Contra