There’s something to be said for background dancers, second string singers and the drummer performing in his band mates’ shadows. A certain confidence grows from being the person just outside the spotlight. If the spaghetti strap on your top snaps mid-performance, there’s the chance that no one will notice the malfunction; if you forget the lyrics, the lead singer will remember. The background performer’s anonymity fosters a sort of lighthearted freedom, a confidence that everything will work out and a youthful commitment to the play in entertainment. Chris Tomson, Vampire Weekend’s drummer, brings these qualities into the forefront with his solo project Youngish American. Tomson, the last of Vampire Weekends’ members to release an independent album, steps into the spotlight under the adopted name Dams of the West, but he retains an unassuming, anti-celebrity persona. He walks onto center stage with his ten track album as if by chance. Tomson’s honest, humorous lyrics and his undisturbed instrumentals — Tomson plays every instrument on the album — require no veneer.
Youngish American represents Tomson as the common thirty-something man. Of course, Tomson’s savant-like talent in vocals, guitar and drums set him apart. Beyond that, however, he too “Didn’t really start to floss until [he] was 31.” That gives me twelve more years to finally get into the habit. Next time my dentist asks if I’ve been flossing, I’ll tell him I’m too young. All throughout the album, Tomson tackles subjects that the aging, anxious American would take too seriously. With satirical wit and a Vampire Weekend-esque up swinging beat, Dams of the West weighs real goals and passing thoughts with equal resonance. The album flows like a stream of consciousness. In “Death Wish,” Tomson sings, “Think I’m ready to be a father now/ But I want to get some pizza first.” Tomson may step into the spotlight in this debut album, but he sings the words we mumble to a friend — something we intonate as a joke but actually mean with the utmost sincerity. When sings out loud, these seemingly meaningless ideas become all the more truthful, sensible and candid.
In an interview with another thirty-something male, Tomson questions the profundity and universality of his album. The interviewer and interviewee agree that the lyrics mean something to them — they’re both newly married men in similar professional fields. As an almost-twenty-something college student, Youngish American makes sense to me too. Young-ish includes a wide range of ages. I bet Tomson has identified as young-ish for half his life; I’ve been young-ish for at least five years and plan to continue that way for at least fifty more. Young-ish, for my purposes and for its role in Tomson’s album, means having a lot of time — free time or lifetime. And it means facing that time and all the unknowns and hopes and worries that come with it. Young-ish means you’ve done something but you’re not nearly finished. For Tomson, he’s played in Vampire Weekend — and in several other lesser known groups. He’s also worked on a ranch in Montana “where he learned when you butcher a cow it’s gross so/ Should try to keep your gloves on.” Few people can say they’ve butchered a cow and fewer have performed as a Grammy Award-winning act. But we all come from somewhere and move toward something else. Once you’ve butchered a cow, you learn to keep your gloves on; and once you’ve accomplished one thing you pause before moving on to the next. Youngish American gives words and melodies to that empty space between two non-descript stages.
Tomson keeps a unified tone throughout his album, but he touches on subjects from the mundane to the existential. Like placing a “juice bar next to the liquor store,” Youngish American moves quickly and easily from personal, arbitrary narrative to momentous, universal concerns. From a ranch in Montana to pizza to “another issue with swimsuits,” Tomson hums toward larger questions of “what [his] time is worth.” Young means infinite; young-ish signifies a middle ground between two blocks — the naïve and the wise. Being in this space, Tomson makes assertions and asks questions in his lyrics with provocatively little conviction. His words make us re-think our own views on social, political and individual problems. Tomson intermixes the banal with the philosophical in a chain of continuous thoughtfulness. He thinks about fatherhood like he thinks about pizza, with a raw and refreshing simplicity. All in the same song, Tomson reflects on “intermittent fun” and how he’s “working on [his] empathy… working on his self-control… working on accepting the world.” Tomson promises he doesn’t “want to be perfect.” But Youngish American shows how impressively well he keeps things in perspective.
Introducing a solo album after achieving huge success as the drummer of a popular Indie group would be paralyzingly intimidating for many musicians. Tomson’s Youngish American holds none of this anxiety. He assembled the album in the year after Vampire Weekend’s last tour. He had free time. He chose how to spend it wisely. According to several modern philosophers, meaningful things come out of boredom. It sounds like a very millennial idea to let kids do nothing and wait for something innovative and ground-breaking to emerge. What they really mean is that unscheduled time, screen-free, responsibility-free time allows for creativity and self awareness. Tomson’s new album acts as evidence for the pro-boredom ideology. In Youngish American, he takes time to observe his surroundings and reflect on his past. And, through the process, he turns back in and learns something about himself and about being between the beginning and the end. I “don’t want to be perfect,” but I hope, by the time I’m thirty-one, I’ll stop wasting time and create something as beautiful, simple and true as Youngish American.
Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]