Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rostam soundtracks summer love with the jazzy Changephobia

Rostam Batmanglij
Rostam Batmanglij
Photo: Olivia Bee

Rostam Batmanglij first introduced the world to his post-Vampire Weekend solo work with 2017's Half-Light, a record that combined his former band’s signature baroque pop sound with intricate new arrangements. It mined new sonic territory for Batmanglij, allowing him to explore influences from his Middle Eastern roots. Since then, Batmanglij’s continued to make a name for himself as a sought-out indie and pop producer, working with Clairo and HAIM. His latest record, Changephobia, feels like a re-introduction to what he’s capable of in his own music. While Half-Light feels more apt to be listened to under twinkling stars, Changephobia is a fitting record for sunny summer days, leaning into a stripped-down sound that combines pop with jazz.

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But embracing minimalism doesn’t mean this new record lacks excitement. Listeners could be forgiven for wondering if Changephobia is at least in part a concept album about a couple falling in love unexpectedly. Though the record kickstarts with “These Kids We Knew,” a song about global warming that features Danielle Haim on drums, the romantic narrative begins with “From The Back Of A Cab.” A song about taking faith in a new romance, Batmanglij sings, “You and me could be a mistake/It been feeling right though/Never tried so hard not to spend the night.” As its title suggests, it captures a vulnerable moment of the catalyst for a new romance, heading into the unknown. Batmanglij builds it around complex drums, paired with synths, piano, and soft guitar, and the beauty of the song lies in how it still manages to sound delicate, despite the rich, multi-layered instrumentation. It’s followed by “Unfold You,” a jazzy track that feels deeply intimate, as he details moments at home with a new partner, snuggling up to each other, pushing back the fear of what could come next.

Each song after feels like a vignette of the couple figuring out themselves along the way, snapshotting moments like road trips (“4Runner”) and learning to express their needs with each other (“To Communicate”). Batmanglij has explained in interviews that the album title and concept came to him after meeting a man on a park bench who advised the musician that “Change is good, go with it.” But the sentiment behind the title comes from the fear of change that can arise when two people are bound as one. It’s a fear that feels all too familiar during a time when we’re slowly reaching “normalcy” in the final stretch of the pandemic: We’re rediscovering how to invite someone new into our lives. Changephobia thrives in its uncomfortable yet relatable lyrics about not knowing all the answers and being afraid to mess things up (“You think I never needed anyone / I don’t know… you might be right/But all of it is untold by the future,” sings Batmanglij in “Bio18").

But the changes don’t only come in the relationship shown throughout the album. Batmanglij left New York City years ago to move to L.A. after his final Vampire Weekend record, Modern Vampires Of The City, but still travels back and forth between the two cities on a regular basis. Changephobia captures the influences from both coasts. Take “Next Thing,” for example: The track is about Batmanglij’s move to California, looking back at his former life on the East Coast. Beginning with the fast-paced pop associated with his early New York City days, the song soon shifts into a dreamy track that evokes chilled-out, West Coast vibes. It’s an apt switch, as Batmanglij sings, “Next thing I knew I was in California / It didn’t feel strange at all.”

It’s impossible to ignore the connection between Batmanglij’s former band and his new solo work in this record, especially given that he includes an interlude which sounds remarkably like “Giving Up The Gun.” But where Changephobia falters is in those moments; they’re a reminder that while Batmanglij’s solo records are frequently impressive and even stunning at times, there hasn’t yet been that “Aha!” instance that turned his early, pre-solo music into pop magic. Batmanglij has helped other artists find the hits they were trying to get out of their minds—like Clairo’s “Bags” and “Sofia,” or HAIM’s “Summer Girl” and "I Know Alone"—and Changephobia shows he’s one step closer to that. But Batmanglij’s not quite there yet. Perhaps there’s a changephobia of his own, stopping him from perfecting a sound that’s sufficiently removed from his beginnings.