With their first three albums, Vampire Weekend combined arcane lyrics, bouncy pop sensibilities, and the worldly and varied instrumentation of band member Rostam Batmanglij to create something new out of the stagnant mold of indie rock in the mid-2000s. Now, a decade after the beginnings of Vampire Weekend, Rostam has left the band to pursue solo endeavors, racking up a host of producer credits for the likes of Frank Ocean, Solange, and Carly Rae Jepsen. “Half Light” is his first bonafide solo release and his only release since last year’s exquisite “I Had A Dream That You Were Mine,” a collaborative effort with Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen.
The songs of “Half Light” represent many years of Rostam’s work, with songs such as “Wood” dating to as far back as 2011. This makes the album feel at times like more a collection of songs than a cohesive, singular release. The things that tie the songs together are Rostam’s signature styles and combinations of influences, like vibrant, elegant strings and multi-cultural rhythms and percussion.
Opening the album is “Sumer”, an ironically and gleamingly frost-covered track featuring sleigh bells and distant choirs. A baroque-style harpsichord solo (a welcome Rostam signature) breaks up the song’s second half.
Next is “Bike Dream,” one of the leading singles for the album that breaks through the shimmering iciness of “Sumer” with bombastic, fuzzy production atop an earworm of a vocal melody in the chorus. The bombast of the song makes it one of the most fun on the album, and Rostam’s mumbly vocals give it an intimacy that helps it connect on a more poignant level.
“Half-Light” begins as a piano ballad, a style that leaves Rostam’s vocal more exposed. This reveals the uneven quality of his vocal performance, wherein emotional conviction hides behind shy mumbling, leading to a feeling of a lack of confidence that detracts from the impact of the vocals. When the rest of the band comes in, however, you can practically hear his nervousness evaporate as he has more to hide behind. This vocal inconsistency is a pattern that happens throughout the album, but it’s more of a gripe than a deal breaker for the most part.
Next up, “Thatch Snow” brings back the wintery aesthetics of the opener with a string section straight out of the “Sims 3” soundtrack. It’s shockingly pleasant, but in no way unwelcome. One does wonder if different song sequencing could have facilitated a smoother transition into the jarring calmness of the track, but I digress.
“Wood” is the first point at which the album stumbles. Opening with sitars and tablas that are quickly brought to contrast with a string section and backbeat hand drumming, the song is a stew of musical influences. As one of the longest songs on the album, it winds and spins dizzyingly through a vastness of musical territory, but Rostam fails to establish enough of a solid foundation to make it feel like a song, despite its musicality.
“I Will See You Again” floats us out of this musical ménage-a-trois through the much simpler arena of piano balladry and into “Hold You”, one of the more unsightly songs here. The song relies heavily on garbled autotune as an effect, which, when combined with Rostam’s inarticulate vocals just leave the song in a jumbled heap on the floor of Rostam’s studio. The brief vocal feature from Angel Deradoorian, while nice, is not enough to save the track and serves more as polish upon an ill-conceived idea.
“When” combines the issues of “Wood”s indistinct song structure and mangled influences with the vocal effect fuckery of “Hold You,” resulting in a song that while not egregiously bad is uninteresting at best.
At this point, the worst of the album is over, with “Rudy” propelling us into it’s much more interesting second half. A backbeat ska-type feel carries a happy, catchy vocal line through the song, including through several points where Rostam really throws open the curtain he so often places in front of his vocal performances and delivers some messy, but impassioned and very human lines that serve in stark and welcome contrast to the concealed mumbling of much of the album. A blown out sax solo brings the song to a close in an odd but triumphant and exciting way, helping to reinvigorate the album after its lackluster middle.
“Warning Intruders” and “EOS” show the Rostam does indeed know how to simplify. Both have quiet, sweetly sung vocals and spacey instrumentals, but offer different takes on a basic mood with “Warning Intruders” being odd and at tension and “EOS” helping to cool the album down. This sense of deflation transitions well into “Gwan.”
Rostam’s years of writing and arranging strings are brought to fruition gorgeously on “Gwan.” You can quite literally hear the smile in Rostam’s voice in one of the best vocals on the album, proving that his mumbly delivery can provide a feeling of intimacy rather than one of lacking confidence. It brings the album to a close by evoking the best of its traits. Unfortunately, a reprise of “Don’t Let It Get To You” prevents it from being a legitimate closer, but it’s in strength in the context of the album remains the same.
“Half Light” serves as an excellent proof of concept of how Rostam can function as a solo act. Many of its problems could be alleviated by a simple change in approach: greater sense of focus. Rostam’s immense talents and ability to draw from a large pool of influences leaves him vulnerable to losing sight of the importance of having foundations to his songs. An admirable and enjoyable first effort, “Half Light” gives us a glimpse of what Rostam is capable of and leaves us excited for what he has in store.