“I know you had to shoot that dog I loved so much, I know you had to do it!” sings Frances Quinlan at the end of Painted Shut, Hop Along’s sophomore album. With the release of their new album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, you’d think she has some kind of problem with canines.
Quinlan has been looking inward, and it shows on “Prior Things,” the album’s closing track. Like Painted Shut, BYHOD closes on a song that encapsulates a lot of themes that run throughout the album. I’m reminded of a quote from Quinlan on a press release: “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. That I just deferred to men throughout my life,” Quinlan says. “But by thinking you’re powerless, you’re really robbing yourself. I’m at a point in my life where I’m saying instead, ‘Well, what can I do?’” Throughout the song, Quinlan makes reference to the “little lower road” the narrator takes, compared to a more dominant presence, the nature of their relationship unclear. By the end, however, the script is flipped, “And nobody needs to know/ Will know that I was only holding your place on this/ Your little lower road!” The album is largely focused on disappointment in men, whether that’s on a grand scale, or between individuals, or looking inward to examine one’s own actions.
Hop Along have changed a lot since Freshman Year, Quinlan’s debut as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis, back when she acted as a solo freak-folk act. With the addition of her brother Mark on drums, Tyler Long on bass, and Joe Reinhart on guitar, the band’s sound has also expanded, as a result of their varying influences colliding. It shows on BYHOD far more than any of their other albums. It’s lush, rich with imagery that breaks your heart and gets your blood boiling, sometimes all at once. “How Simple,” the first single off the album, is a break-up song that tackles issues of maturing and becoming a new person, that ultimately ends on a happy, if still slightly bitter, message. It embodies Hop Along’s distinct genre-less style while showing off their pop-sensibilities.
I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear Quinlan’s already ethereal voice vocoded until I heard “Somewhere A Judge”. The song has everything: shredding guitar, clever twists of language, and Quinlan’s habit of telling half of a story, leaving much of it up to the listener to work out over countless relistens. “How You Got Your Limp” follows this same pattern, telling the tale of a professor losing his cool at a bar, at the expense of the staff. “All your strength came from her humiliation/ I can hear you/ I can’t do anything,” a sentiment I’m sure many relate to. Its tale is sadly commonplace, but put eloquently in the acoustic setting, with accompaniments from a string section and an otherworldly electric sound.
The sound of BYHOD is restrained, and more organized than previous albums. This shows on “Not Abel,” an orchestral piece at first, where Quinlan sings of the biblical brothers and something of a familial mystery, but by minute-three drops the formality and brings it back to a more four-part band sound, finishing the story on a strange upbeat. “Daddy giving the middle finger to the Kodak lens” she sings, “When I saw her face she smiled, ‘I don’t know why I saved it all this time,’” a sickly sweet sentiment hinting at something larger.
Throughout BYHOD, Quinlan confronts the many failures of men, and it comes to a larger scale on “One That Suits Me,” largely inspired by, of all things, a podcast on World War I. She describes interactions between military officials, scientists, and a mysterious moving ground. She hits the nail on the head when the chorus lands: “Of course I am for peace/ One that suits me,” an all-too-accurate representation of the mission statement of the West when it comes to war. It’s similar to a track off Painted Shut, “Powerful Man,” in that it’s deceptively catchy, but one read-through of the lyrics shows it to be horribly tragic in its message.
“So strange to be shaped by such strange men” is a line sung repeatedly throughout the album, an expression that comes full circle with “Prior Things,” one of Hop Along’s most ambitious songs to date. Its second verse says so much in describing the nature of a blue jay, juxtaposed next to the description of her relationship with a mysterious figure, knowing she will never be a priority in his mind. Beneath this, an ecstatic arrangement of the band, complete with strings, keyboard, and chill guitar riffs. I could listen to it forever, both to hear the wonderful drops in dynamics and rises in instrumentation, but also to wander through Quinlan’s forest of a narrative, where one can get lost in phrases and hidden meanings.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog covers a lot of ground with just nine songs over 40 minutes. It’s a landmark in the narrative of Hop Along, from their inception in 2004 to today, but is also representative, on a larger scale, of the discontentment many feel with those in power. Power is wielded in so many ways, and there are those who abuse it, and others who let them abuse it, whether it be intentionally or unconsciously. Hop Along looks inward to seek out why we allow others to take advantage of us, and how we can take action within our narratives. If we can recognize these barriers within ourselves, we can begin to address the walls outside of us.
Photo credit to Tonje Thilesen.