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This solo debut of Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson was born three years ago, when the band took a break after touring behind 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City. Tomson, who had just turned 30, got married and got a mortgage. Less typically for someone his age, Tomson was also staring at what he called “a fairly large amount of time off.” He had his childhood piano moved from his parents’ house in New Jersey to his basement in Brooklyn, and—after “probably two months watching sports and then two months staring blankly”—started writing these songs.
He went with the name Dams of the West because of an article debating whether the dams in western America have outlived their usefulness and, “as a straight, white man playing generally rock’n’roll music” in 2017, “felt a certain camaraderie with the crumbling infrastructure from the middle of the last century.” He uses this acute awareness of his place in life as a vehicle to muse about the droll scenes that play out in his narrow range of vision. Its effect on almost every level—political, social, artistic—is essentially useless.
The muddle of Youngish American begins with the music. As the rhythmic force on three of the most critically adored albums of the past decade, Tomson knows his way around the drum kit. He also deftly plays almost all of the instruments on Youngish American. But his mellow voice is affectless, even with Black Keys’ Patrick Carney as producer. Carney’s touch on the record is serviceable, keeping the reverb gauzy and the percussion brawny, similar to his work with bands like Tennis and Black Lips. However, at some point, it was mistakenly suggested these songs should include swooping violin runs behind Tomson’s showy, clumsy lyrics.
Those lyrics dream oh so big of mixing Courtney Barnett’s knack for detail with Father John Misty’s ironic self-awareness. As a rule, the less comically winking they are, the better Tomson comes off. It’s charming when he sings “I don’t care where your heart is at/Even if it’s right where Sinatra sat,” on the slower, statelier “Polo Grounds,” named after the long-gone home of baseball’s New York Giants.
But other mundanities are delivered with such a dearth of meaning or poetry that they simply become mundane. “The Inerrancy of You and Me” hops from cooking “pasta with the red sauce/When I know you’re PMSing” to using the titular word Tomson says he recently just learned. The woozy ballad “Flag on the Can” repeats a half-baked question about Bud Light packaging, then adds, after what could only be a rip from some comically oversized bong, “What is philosophy, anyway?” Wine and personal finance are actually recurring themes across the album.
Like the least charming aspects of Father John Misty or late-career Sun Kil Moon, Tomson’s self-reflexiveness is exhausting. The fuzzed-out “Pretty Good WiFi” describes noticing a person’s legs and then having to realize, “Oh, shit, the male gaze!” A fairly representative track lyrically is the spaciously arranged “Perfect Wave,” which mostly involves the protagonist talking about vintage Pittsburgh Pirates baseball with his father-in-law, but then realizing he doesn’t need “the coldest fridge in the city” because the grocery store is so close. Tomson has said the line was inspired by a radio story that “made me feel like I took both my fridge and proximity to infinite foodstuffs for granted.” It just goes on like this.
The real pathos comes from how affable and intelligent Tomson comes across in interviews, and the real tragedy is that he simply might’ve benefited from testing the waters on a couple of EPs. The anxiety Tomson has acknowledged about becoming the last Vampire Weekend-er to go solo is understandable: VW frontman Ezra Koenig parlayed a Yeah Yeah Yeahs in-joke into a Beyoncé songwriting credit; Rostam, who officially quit the group early last year, left his bold stamp on songs by Solange and Frank Ocean when he wasn’t collaborating with the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser. Bassist Chris Baio was releasing glinting synth-pop under his own surname for several years before he delivered his debut album, 2015’s The Names.
Vampire Weekend have been working on a fourth album. When Tomson returns as a solo artist, it’d be better if he first had something he felt an urgent need to say, and then decided to make a record of it. Youngish American is a hapless vanity album, sad for all the wrong reasons, and all the more frustrating because it couches wokeness in songs about the extra advantages afforded to Tomson’s demographic. Issues of privilege and identity are complicated no matter your tax bracket, but it’s better to seek inspiration from without rather than from within.Share