To describe an album as “messy” immediately puts a reader at unease. The term typically denotes an album that goes in wildly different directions, never fully coalescing into a whole. As we stretch further into streaming reigning supreme over all other music formats, artists have taken this as an opportunity to indulge. We get overly long albums that, despite garnered mostly unfavorable reactions from listeners, tend to snatch up a hefty number of streams. This is obviously because of the abundance of tracks artists lay down on a single album. The issue here, though, isn’t the ethical quandary of that, but more so that a focus is lost along the way. An artist getting messy these days is indulgent in the self-importance vein, not in the Grand Artistic Statement one. But once in a while, an album comes out whose sound is so difficult to describe, you want to fall on the word “messy.” In these cases, however, it’s a uniquely positive word to sum up something that you want to urge someone to listen to. This is precisely where Hop Along’s excellent new album Bark Your Head Off, Dog happily sits.
The Philly-based band have been making records that sound “messy” since their official full band debut, Get Disowned, in 2012. On the one hand, this is not new territory for the group whose densely packed instrumentals never seem to want to sit still for too long. However, on their new record the band seem to goo even more full-force into the mess-zone, yet come out radiating confidence with hooks for days. The way the band’s grooves twist and turn around leader Frances Quinlan’s voice creates a kaleidoscopic sound unmatched by any of their peers. It results in a montage-like atmosphere of half-remembered memories bathed in colorful light. Her lyrics pull up phrases, images, and characters that always seem to be caught off guard, like we’re just peering into one moment in their lives. It’s often difficult to fully understand any one track’s story, yet each one feels like a whole piece waiting to be explored.
In some respects, the way I keep wanting to describe Bark Your Head Off, Dog might make you feel like this is “difficult music” for boring people. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because despite its literary flirtations lyrically, and instrumentals consistently on the move, the band sound like they’re having a blast. Which truly makes it a blast to listen to. The lead-off single and opener “How Simple” illustrates this perfectly. It has a natural grooviness to it that keeps winding around Quinlan’s unhinged voice as she sings about love lost. Or maybe it’s the way relationships evolve and devolve? Never mind that, the way the song sounds is like a burst straight through to the pleasure center of your brain. Its hook of group vocals shouting “don’t worry we will both find out, just not together” will have you wanting to sing along to it immediately. And herein lies what makes these songs so brilliant.
They’ll hit you with some of the best indie rock sounds you’ve heard this year, and lines that’ll dig into your brain. But it’s once you start to dive deeper that things get more complicated. You begin to realize that these catchy songs often have shifting melodies, multiple guitar lines, violins woven in, and oddly-placed folk strumming. And yet all of that stuff blossoms into a immediacy so effortlessly it’s hard to wrap your mind around it. The same can be said of the lyrics, whose false-starts, non sequiturs, and descriptive images at times conjure up the denseness of Joanna Newsom. Album highlight “Somewhere A Judge” discusses the death penalty while a personal story bubbles under the surface. Its chorus of “afternoon vanilla sun crawls away across the lawn, through the phone I pull you and drag your voice around…” is a wordy, specific set of lines that works as one of the catchiest chorusses of the year simply because of how Frances Quinlan delivers them. The song is also representative of the “messiness” of the instrumentals, with melodies that come, go, and cycle back around. As the track winds to a close, Quinlan’s vocals also get processed through a vocoder briefly before the track turns into a repeated phrase and instrumental breakdown. It’s odd, yet utterly beautiful, catchy, and memorable.
“Not Abel” is another track that highlights the oddness of the band’s sound. It’s sound is at points baroque-pop, and at others totally rock-oriented. The song mostly sticks to a beautiful piece of music until it starts to sound like its ending before transitioning into a guitar-led jam. Lyrically, it focuses a lot on the story of Cain (not Abel), but there are instances of personal reflection that just glide their way in without you even realizing it. It may not be the most memorable song on the album, but its affinity for Quinlan’s fearless voice leading the instruments into new places when you least expect them showcases what a beautifully controlled mess the sound of this record is. And although the instrumentals are incredible, it’s still Quinlan’s voice that remains Hop Along’s greatest strength. By voice, I do mean both her literal voice and her writing voice. She sings with a beautiful howl that comes from deep inside her like it’s completely essential it gets out. And the way she writes lyrics is unmistakably original, with all sorts of ideas and scenes crashing into each other without sounding off-putting or pretentious. And often at the core of these songs is some sort of rich emotion that knocks you off guard with its placement and turns of phrase.
For the best, most strangely captivating lyrics on the album look no further than tracks “How You Got Your Limp” and “Look Of Love.” “How You Got Your Limp” is a short track, with the shortest lyrics, yet somehow remains the most wordy with mysteriousness wrapping around detailed descriptors. Musically, its slower than a lot on the album, focusing mostly on strummed guitar and layers of strings, but how each of these core sounds weave in and around each other is nothing short of brilliant. If you try and pick it apart piece by piece, it sounds like it just shouldn’t make sense, but somehow the band stitches it all together into something pretty and profound. “Look Of Love” is a track that seems entirely built off of the stream of consciousness lyrical style. Its opening with an image “Jane Austen in the hospital, your handwriting on the legal pad was barely legible” is rendered a hazy memory as the production values go way way down to very lo-fi territory. But as the lyrics start to build on top of each other and reach a deeper meaning, Quinlan’s voice gets closer and closer. The production reaches back up to where it was throughout the preceding songs, and the instrumentals grow from a simple acoustic guitar into a rollicking full-band sound. It’s a trick that plays on the idea of memory, a theme that might be the key to unlocking everything that Hop Along are doing on this LP.
As the songs recall others (specifically with the repeated patriarchal take-down: “so strange to be shaped by such strange men”), and individual songs get stacked with new people, places, and concepts, the messiness of it all starts to build up into the finale. Closer “Prior Things” might be the most beautiful thing that the band have ever created. It’s a string heavy track that retains the constantly-moving feel of all the others. Its clear-eyed lyrics seem to be reflecting on all the other lyrical asides scattered throughout the album. It is as if finally Quinlan retains her sense of place and gets to a deeper meaning within herself. The music rolls forward like its letting go of all the messiness before. It’s emotionally moving, musically packed, fun to listen to, and cathartic to sing along to, all in just under 6 minutes. The precise, yet thrilling messiness of everything before pulls you in multiple directions, seemingly simultaneously, but they all somehow weave together into one of the best closing songs of the year. The final moments sound like Quinlan is backing away from the mic as her delivery gets more ferocious. Suddenly, she recedes into the instrumental jam that carries the listener off into a climax that I wish went on for five more minutes.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog, is not an album that plays it safe, or gets stuck to trying to live up to the standards of past glories. Hop Along came out strong right out the gate, but they’ve managed to build both follow-ups on what they’ve already created. Painted Shut found the band exploring more odd angles as well as more hooky immediacy, but Dog takes all of that and elevates it to a new plane. The songs this time have a controlled confusion to them that sounds not only alluringly odd, but also immediately rewarding. The rewards, of course, get richer the more time you spend with this album. And unlike many of the messy albums of today, this album only hosts 9 tracks that total to just 40 minutes. See, the difference with what we’ve come to expect messiness to mean with what it means here is intent. So many artists just throw everything at the soundboard and see what it makes, but Hop Along went into the studio and made music the way they make music. It’s that simple, but yeah it’s also really not simple. It’s messy and complicated, but it’s equally digestible and fun. Hop Along sound like they’re at their creative peak, which easily could have been said on either of their previous albums. Somehow, the band keep topping themselves, while never straying from what makes them so brilliantly them. Dog is an album that tackles memory, death, love, and a feast of other ideas with a breezy, yet densely intricate sound you cannot help getting completely enveloped in. In a year already rife with great albums, this one still has managed to stand shoulders above almost everything else.
4.8 out of 5.