"Ya Hey" is arguably the most important track off Modern Vampires of the City.
Instrumentals in this track are unparalleled compared to anything Vampire Weekend has ever done. The gleaming synthesizer hangs in the air for just a moment on the intro, until almost simultaneously, Ezra sings his first “ohhhh,” as the insistent, chant-like drum comes in, with the low bass strumming along in the background as a perfect backdrop to Ezra’s direct address.
The keyboards that set off the bridge to “Ya Hey” are reminiscent of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue somehow, and it’s fitting how the other instruments almost fall out during the bridge. The effect is that it sounds as if Ezra is alone in a dark candlelit room, singing out to where only God can hear him.
The squeaky, synthesized ya-heys of the chorus against the drum and bass somehow don’t sound at all to be silly or superfluous; they add to the urgency of the track. It’s as if with each sliding ya-hey, what’s really being said is: “this is important. listen.”
The use of gospel singers during the later parts of “Ya Hey” also is perfectly appropriate, considering the tone of the song and the lyrics. Usually when gospel singers are added to tracks, it serves as a grand finale or highlight of the song, but here they’re just added voices to the already grandiose piece. This is why it works.
The lead up into the final chorus is the instrumental peak of the song. As Ezra speaks quietly and almost nonchalantly of festival grounds and the air beginning to cool, the keyboard is heard in focus once again as the other instruments fade, until they return triumphantly for the final chorus. Instrumentally, this song is a masterpiece.
Lyrically, “Ya Hey” is blasphemous, which is why it’s so important. Ezra speaks directly to God in a sometimes awed, sometimes condescending, sometimes loving voice. For anyone who grew up with religion, “Ya-Hey” is a bit unsettling, because this is not how we address God. In fact, we don’t really address Him at all, unless it’s to praise Him, ask for forgiveness, or thank Him.
"Oh, sweet thing, Zion doesn’t love you. And Babylon don’t love you, but you love everything." This opener is sad and pitying—you poor thing, Ezra seems to be saying. Nobody loves you, but you love it all. How could you do that? Ezra is direct and blunt as he lists off the droves who don’t love God: America, the Motherland, the Fatherland, the faithless, the zealous hearts, and he even admits—himself.
This is perhaps the most interesting line of all: "Oh you saint, America don’t love you, so I could never love you, in spite of everything." Here he makes God sound like some sort of trend. You could replace “you” with any trifling thing, and the sentence would still work. Imagine if it was instead: “America don’t love crocs, so I could never love crocs in spite of everything.” He cheapens God to something that can only be loved if everyone around him is doing it. Which is again, blasphemous, but true—-if God were some trendy, cool, everybody’s-doing-it type of thing: if God were tumblr or instagram or twitter—-everyone would love God.
But God isn’t, and so…."I could never love you, in spite of everything," an apologetic, simple admission, is the most profound line of the entire track.
"Ya Hey" reminds me of that question we play sometimes: "If you could sit with anyone, alive or dead, and ask them anything, who would it be, and what would you ask?" The track gives off the impression that Ezra is sitting in a dark bar, sharing a whiskey or smoking a bowl with the Almighty, and given the chance to speak openly. The questions that result are scandalous to believers and devout worshippers, or even to people who had the influence of religion at one point in their life, but don’t any longer: You won’t even say your name, but who could ever live that way? The Motherland don’t love you, the Fatherland don’t love you, so why love anything? Oh, good God, indeed. Ezra goes even further than that, offering that he might understand something in God’s inner psyche, as he sings: "And I can’t help but feel that you see the mistake, but you let it go…"
The “mistake” indicated here is the mistake that humanity makes, namely that God created us all, but nothing and no one loves Him in return. How could anyone live that way, knowing this, and let it go?
"Ya Hey" is one of the most important modern tracks ever. Most music with religious overtones is praiseworthy, or asking for forgiveness in some way. No other track examines the fundamental mysteries of God’s nature that no one knows the answer to, in such a conversational, frank way. The truth is: even the most faithful priests, rabbis, and churchgoers don’t know the answer to any of Ezra’s questions. Why does God love anything? Can’t He see that all of these people that He created don’t love Him? Doesn’t that hurt? Doesn’t that make Him sad? How could anyone, divine or otherwise, live that way, and love everyone without expecting love in return, to the point that He doesn’t even care to give us His name. No one knows or understands the answer to that question. No one. And yet, we aren’t allowed to ask it. No matter if one considers themselves an atheist or believer, the influence of God is still alive in the modern world, and this track is important because of that.
"Ya Hey" explores the nature of God, and the nature of true, unconditional love. As many religions are taught: God is Love; they are one and the same.
I really like this song.