Ex-Vampire Weekender Rostam’s New Solo Album Is All About Breaking Out of the Box
The ornate flourishes and neo-classicisms of Vampire Weekend were always credited to former multi-instrumentalist/writer/producer Rostam Batmanglij, and that always had the taint of homophobia to me. Why was the gay member responsible for the more flamboyant aspects of the quartet’s world-music-indie rock, and not Ezra Koenig, their lead singer? To hear Rostam tell it, it’s about the handy little boxes writers (and management, and the world) like to push artists into (and we include the gay press in this assessment, by the way).
“‘Rostam was in a band and now he has a career as a producer — he was the producer in the band, and now he’s a producer outside of the band,’” Rostam has said. “‘And that’s his linear trajectory.’ Another possible narrative is, ‘Rostam’s had these artist projects that he was part of, and now his art is his own project. That’s all he’s gonna do.’ It’s very much about, ‘This was your old box. Here’s your new box. Have a happy life.’ And that’s not my life. It definitely hasn’t been my life in the last six years, and it won’t be for the years to come.”
While his former band rode the indie rock zeitgeist to chart heights on the back of smart, Afro-pop-inspired grooves and wry observations of modern life, the solo artist Rostam has become isn’t as easily contained. His second solo release — the succinct, emotionally-direct Changephobia — is nearly a compendium of his interests to date, as both a performer and producer.
There’s the louche vibe of Hamilton Leithauser there in the loping, regretful title track as well as the lovesick closing cut “Starlight.” The pop hooks he helped Haim finesse on their latest Women in Music Part III can be felt in the opener, “These Kids We Knew.” “Unfold You,” inspired by an instrumental (and sample) from Nick Hakim, a former touring buddy, is a jazzy delight that’s fraught with budding eroticism and promise. And the indie rock he helped bring to the mainstream with Vampire Weekend is all over the rollicking “Kinney,” ladled over with a sensual saxophone riff that gives way to some thrash drone as the tune lumbers towards its bashing close.
There’s an ease to Changephobia missing from a lot of flashier, busier pop music. Subtlety, maybe, but also the natural slowing down of a man easing into middle age.
“In the last five years,” he has said, “something that has been on my mind is the concept of less is more, in the unit of the song and the unit of an album. We all know that feeling of a song that ends quickly and leaves you wanting more. ‘Oh, I just want to press play again.’ And I think similarly, an album where you can get to the end has a certain kind of journey.”
Changephobia — with a running time of just over 38 minutes — is a brief journey that doesn’t overstay its welcome or rattle you to pay attention to it. Rostam trusts that his gentle approach to the prismatic essence of current pop music will be enough to lure a listener towards it, to settle in, contemplate it.
“Records can take years for people to understand them, their meaning, their impact,” he has said. “There are times when you feel like, ‘I’m going to put this song out, but I don’t think anyone’s going to get what it’s really about.’ And then it becomes clear that everybody really gets what it’s about. There are other times where you’re like, ‘It’s so clear to me what this song is about,’ and I still feel like the world just misses that. It makes sense that it would take decades for people to understand, let alone be able to accept you.”