On September 15, 2017, former Vampire Weekend guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij released his long awaited debut album Half-Light. Half-Light was welcomed with open, loving arms by music fans and critics alike; one Noisey article claiming “Rostam Might Be a Pop Genius” in the headline. Eliminate that “might be” and replace it with “is” because Rostam proves with his new album that he is, without question, a pop genius. “Bike Dream” – the song released with the album’s announcement – is all the proof you need. In his episode of Song Exploder’s podcast, Rostam explains his creative process in regards to “Bike Dream,” describing his desire to create a “futuristic T.Rex” sound and his inclusion of crackling vinyl on the track. Hearing his process – from the broader, conceptual ideas to the intricacies of the production – highlights the brilliance and passion behind each song. Every Rostam track inevitably has a different story behind its creation, but each one presents itself as so distinctly his. Even when listening to other artists’ songs that he’s lent a production or songwriting hand to, such as Declan Mckenna’s “Listen to Your Friends” or Haim’s “Walking Away”, it’s clear that Rostam is behind them.
In January 2016, Rostam announced his departure from Vampire Weekend on Twitter, writing, “my identity as a songwriter + producer, I realized, needs to stand on its own.” The Rostam sound that was so recognizable on other artists’ tracks had not yet taken on a life of it’s own. This is part of the reason why Half-Light is so good – it’s comforting in its familiarity and refreshing in its individuality. Like Vampire Weekend’s past three records, Half-Light is a New York narrative. Rostam, an alumnus of Columbia University, references 14th street, The New Yorker, and hailing cabs. Presented in this way they can seem like clichés, but Rostam’s intimate lyrics and vocals make them extremely personal. Where Vampire Weekend’s New York is often bright and bustling, Rostam’s is quieter and more introspective. Even though Rostam recently moved to L.A., much of the album’s identity is that of a New Yorker. Identity is a key theme on the album; his personal identity as a queer, first-generation Iranian-American influences both lyrics and rhythms. The album prominently features a twelve-string guitar that’s been tuned like an Iranian instrument called a tar, and he draws inspiration from Iranian and Middle Eastern folk music he listened to growing up. On tracks such as “Sumer” and “Wood” these influences are front and center, combined with synths and elements of modern pop.
Lyrically, the album is just as striking. On “Half-Light”, Rostam sings “Baby, all the lights came up to illuminate the room / Blinded me, I shut my eyes to see an imprint there of you.” On “Bike Dream”, “Two boys, one to kiss your neck / And one to bring you breakfast.” On “EOS”, “But I held you close, my cheek pressed up against yours / And I could feel the hereafter out in front of us both.” Each lyric more poetic than the next, Rostam’s writing manages to be just as personal as it is vague.
In the same Song Exploder podcast, Rostam compares a synth used in “Bike Dream” to the music he used to hear in the planetarium as a child. ‘Planetarium music’ may be the best way to describe Rostam’s sound – transportive, captivating, and a little other-worldly.
By: Hannah Zwick