Exactly one year ago, Vampire Weekend donned some pretty sinister face paint and performed “Unbelievers” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!‘s Halloween show. If memory serves, these were the first notes I heard of what would become Modern Vampires of the City. It’s crazy looking back on that now. For me, MVOTC is one of those special cases where you listen to an album so many times you damn-near internalize it, and then it becomes surreal to think about how, at one point not so long ago, it didn’t exist at all.
But for the six and a half months in between last Halloween and MVOTC’s release, I watched/listened to this YouTube video dozens of times. It was “Unbelievers” to me. And not just that. It was the new album. It was what I thought the rest of the new record was going to sound like. More acoustic guitar. Horns. Some sort of bigger and more organic sound. I was way off, but it ended up turning out fine. I didn’t mind that my expectations were calibrated incorrectly, partly because the final product was so great, and partly because I recognize that my expectations hold no value. A single performance of a song isn’t a promise, and Ezra and Rostam don’t — and shouldn’t — care what I think. They can care about their fans as people — sign autographs for them, stay after shows and chat with them, do community service to help them indirectly — but I can think of nothing sadder than a band trying not to change in order to conform to their fans’ hopes for a third album.
Speaking of modernity (Get it? MODERN Vampires of the City? Does this count as Halloween humor?), this is a very modern problem. It was always the case that you could see a band on tour and they’d perform a new song one way and then record it a completely different way, but it’s never been so easy to obsess over a single performance of an unreleased song from a concert you weren’t even there to see. The sad part is that I’m doing it again. A few weeks back, someone posted to YouTube the audio of a song Fiona Apple and Blake Mills had been performing on their “Anything We Want” tour. “Tipple” is the tentative name, and all the music blogs I read picked up on it. Since then, I’ve listened repeatedly, and it’s become one of my favorite Fiona Apple songs. But it doesn’t actually exist. I shouldn’t have it (when I saw Apple and Mills, the crowd was asked to turn off “all electronic devices,” like we were getting ready to taxi for takeoff), and I don’t even know that she wrote it. It’s a ghost, but it’s become a very real part of my life. Should I be avoiding it? Am I possibly ruining the song by obsessing over a rough draft? I might be, but it’s just so hard to stop a good song once people have heard it, and this one’s so good I’d happily listen to this version forever if it never sees the inside of a studio.
I don’t know what the answer here is. Being a music fan these days is confusing in a thousand different ways, and we haven’t even gotten to the ethical ramifications of putting people’s music up on YouTube without permission. But hey, it’s Halloween. It’s about the kids. And the candy. And, of course, the face paint. Check out VW’s Halloween performance of “Unbelievers” above and the studio version below, and don’t forget to stay up for the late night talk shows — maybe your favorite band is putting on face paint as we speak!