"So every time, at every show, there’s always someone sitting in front of you who’s like, "could you please not dance, cause I’m trying to watch a show," so politely say, "it’s very nice to meet you and I respect your personal space, but I’m trying to be at a fuckin’ rock n’ roll show.”
The most impressive track off of Modern Vampires of the City, “Step” is a whimsical, nimble daydream into the past. It’s a memoir of the dimly-lit, hazy escapades of one’s youth, boasting of cities traveled, music played, and girls loved. It’s that moment when one realizes wistfully and a bit fearfully, late in their 20s, that perhaps their best days are behind them.
The chorus references milestones like getting one’s wisdom teeth removed, but the key lyrics are the question/answer pair of: ”what you on about? I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones.” The ”it” is the sinking feeling, the slight dread, and the frantic inner panic that comes one day—perhaps triggered by nothing in particular—that you’re not getting any younger.
Musically, “Step” is timeless, which fits in harmoniously with its themes of youth and time. The instrumentals layered behind Ezra’s lyrics are a modern variation on Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”. The soft rapping drums, echoed and well placed piano notes, gleaming tinkling synthesizers, and angelic “oohs” create a kaleidoscopic atmosphere akin to the inside of one’s mind. This effect is key to understanding the song.
“Step”, I’d argue, isn’t to be taken literally. The lyrics are reminiscent of a memory: the important parts are colored in and expressed, filled with –isms and inside joke expressions, and a few centrally recurring themes are re-iterated throughout: music, girls, and travel. When we sift through our memories, they aren’t linear and grammatically correct, but they make sense to us, with no edits.
Ezra begins the verses in “Step” boasting of places visited: Mechanicsburg, Anchorage, New York, LA, San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley. Each place comes with a trinket of association attached to it: champagne and disco in New York, tapes in LA and San Francisco, and a communist reader in Berkeley. Listening to this verse conjures an image of Ezra sitting back in a rocking chair, telling grandchildren of his adventures in youth…”Back, back, way back, I used to front like Angkor Wat.” He’s beyond the excitement now, he seems to be saying.
The second verse hints of music, and perhaps Vampire Weekend itself. The lines “ancestors told me that their girl was better, she’s richer than Croesus, she’s tougher than leather,” sound strikingly familiar to those parental conversations where our elders say things like: the music you kids listen to nowadays sucks! Back in my day, we’d listen to… Ezra’s response is witty and satisfied, though: “folks who would laugh when they saw us together, well they didn’t know how to dress for the weather,” perhaps is a subtle dig at people who didn’t “get” Vampire Weekend while they rose to where they are now, at the top of Indie music, with their unique culturally appropriating, East Coast privilege brand of sound.
The iconic “girl” at the heart of “Step”, repeated throughout, is the most puzzling aspect of the track. I’d argue she’s a combination of themes: youth, music, and an actual love. When we remember periods of time or experiences in our life, they’re often innately tied to who we were in love with, at the time. Songs we listen to dredge up memories of a particular person. Cities re-visited often carry memories of that first time we were there, with a special someone. Memories of love permeate everything else we experience, and Ezra flawlessly mingles these ideas in “Step.”
The key verse is the final bridge of “Step”, and particularly the lines: “Maybe she’s gone, and I can’t resurrect her. The truth is, she doesn’t need me to protect her. We know the true death, the true way of all flesh…everyone’s dying, but girl you’re not old yet.” This is the moment, the awareness, and appreciation of aging. It’s simultaneously the realization that youth, though it’s gone in the literal experiencing sense, is never really gone. It lives in our memories, our recollections, and the feelings that rise to the top when we think of certain places, or hear certain songs. Everyone’s dying…but girl, you’re not old yet.
Ezra isn’t really old, of course. But there is a certain point in one’s life when we realize that perhaps all the “first time” experiences we’ll have in life are in the past. Traveling at a certain point begins to look the same, no matter how exciting it is. Music stops relating to us, and feeling as if it was made for us to revel in. Loves of the past reappear in our consciousness, and we ask ourselves: were they the one? This point, no matter what our age suggests, is the moment that triggers “Step.”
“Step” is a beautiful enigma, and Vampire Weekend’s greatest achievement. I really like this song.