Monday, February 3, 2014

Vampire Weekend: Waugh Revisited

In keeping with our reviews of popular media in a Catholic context, the latest entry in our Leisure As Culture series is a triple feature: a joint music, book, and television review. Vampire Weekend is a recent addition to my music library, while Brideshead Revisited has been a favorite book of mine since before I began college. Both share a connection that may not seem obvious. A story of pre-WWII English Catholic aristocracy and rocknrolla? Sure, the band’s image is that of well-dressed university-age fellows, but that’s merely a superficial similarity. It’s VW frontman and songwriter Ezra Koenig who draws the connection to Brideshead in a New York Times article:
[The band’s three albums] reminded me of ‘Brideshead Revisited’... The naïve joyous school days in the beginning. Then the expansion of the world, travel, seeing other places, learning a little bit more about how people live. And then the end is a little bit of growing up, starting to think more seriously, about your life and your faith. If people could look at our three albums as a bildungsroman, I’d be O.K. with that.
If this were how I started every tennis match, I'd be O.K. with that. (Obscure VW reference for the uninitiated here.)
As I’m sure you knew already, this blog is inspired in part by author of Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh’s devout Catholicism and sharp sense of humor. Brideshead is all the more relevant today for being about one man’s search for meaning in changing times. Though published in 1945, the novel is timeless, possessing a beauty of language that complements its themes of nostalgia, young love, and growth to maturity. While I generally insist on reading a book before watching a visual adaptation, the Granada Television 1981 production is so well done that my rule could be excused. That being said, avoid the 2008 film version at all costs, as it manages to revel in the decadence of the characters while essentially erasing any redemptive element, leaving the viewer with a soulless tale of lust and loss.
Jake Gyllenhaal agrees: The movie is junk. 
The book is divided into two parts: "Et in Arcadia Ego" and "A Twitch Upon the Thread." The first is mostly a record of blissful, carefree times gone by for the protagonist, Charles Ryder. This transitions into book two as he matures, having been through love and loss, ultimately to confront the one peculiar Thing amongst a host of peculiarities about the Flytes: their Catholic Faith. The Flytes live in an England which has long since abandoned the Faith of her forefathers. The Church of England was well on its way to becoming the hollow shell it is today, retaining mere trappings of the grand tradition that was destined to be lost when Henry VIII (that "blot of blood and grease upon the History of England") sundered his country’s ties with the rest of the universal Church. After brutal persecutions killed many Catholics in England, it is indeed peculiar that the Flytes lasted so long and retained their Catholic identity.

Which brings us back to the music. Ezra Koenig’s comparison to Brideshead is quite accurate if one considers that the band’s first two albums, Vampire Weekend and Contra, are not quite as serious and introspective as the third, Grammy-winning album, Modern Vampires of the City. Songs from the first album, such as "Mansard Roof," "M79," and "Campus," are catchy, with clever rhymes and lines of pleasant nonsense. (Seriously, you could spend days on Rock Genius with this stuff — do so at your own risk.) Just as Charles Ryder becomes a more serious man in the latter half of Brideshead, so too does the third album become more contemplative, featuring songs about life, death, and God. Charles Ryder, the agnostic, is shown in sharp contrast to the Catholics of many stripes who make up the Flytes. Similarly, Modern Vampires of the City sees one song, “Unbelievers,” which seems philosophically at odds with the more religious “Everlasting Arms,” “Worship You,” and “Ya Hey.”

The religious element is fascinating since it's handled so well. The good reader should be aware of this post from Korrektiv Press exploring how the song “Ya Hey” deftly examines the very nature of God’s Being, all the while disguised as a rollicking good tune. Is this an example of faith as a "whisper," as Gregory Wolfe has written of, or a "shout" worthy of Flannery O'Connor? Take a look at the lyrics, and decide for yourself:

Through the fire and through the flames 
You won’t even say your name
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo 

As a parting shot (pardon the pun), I present "Arrows," which was only released on the special Japanese edition of the first album. If nothing else has convinced you of the Brideshead/VW connection, well, just wait for it…

1 comment:

  1. Very Good article Paul! I really want to get around to reading brideshead revisited now!!