Frances Quinlan, frontwoman of Philadelphia rock quartet Hop Along, writes lyrics that raise more questions than they answer. Both of the band’s previous albums – 2012’s Get Disowned and particularly 2015’s terrific Painted Shut – have operated like storybooks, but the tales within have scarcely offered neat, satisfying conclusions; Quinlan’s narratives are cryptic, sometimes autobiographical, occasionally lifted from literature, and almost always streaked with pain. Her songs are constructed around detailed moments of powerlessness, failure, guilt, injustice, cruelty, and so on, but the vagueness surrounding them lends them a universality, a stripping-away of wider context that seems to ask the attentive listener to fill in the blanks themselves and engage with the events described. Even as they deliver blistering performances and shout-along hooks, Hop Along seems to urge you to empathise.
On their latest outing, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, the stories contained within the songs feel more abstract than ever; they are briefer, more enigmatic scenes, sometimes just dreamlike sequences of images and feelings. Peppy opening track ‘How Simple’ hints at the aftermath of a breakup, but doubles as a meditation on the anxiety of ageing, while ‘Somewhere a Judge’ makes an unusually specific reference to the plan by the state of Arkansas to mass-execute eight men within eleven days; in her frustrated imagining of “a judge stretch[ing] himself out on fine tropical sand”, Quinlan returns to the topic of powerful men, one of her recurring thematic interests. It crops up again on ‘How You Got Your Limp’, ‘Not Abel’, and ‘One That Suits Me’, yet her handling of these figures is rarely directly accusatory as much as it is melancholy; “So strange to be shaped by such strange men” she muses more than once across the album’s nine tracks.
Quinlan’s lyrics are filled with apparent banalities – minor altercations, dying animals, car journeys, even brief glances which remain with people for lifetimes
The climax of the record, however, occurs on the penultimate track, ‘Look of Love’, wherein Quinlan recalls the death of a noisy neighbourhood dog and the feelings of both relief and guilt that it inspired in her. Her lyrics are filled with incidents just like this, apparent banalities – minor altercations, dying animals, car journeys, even brief glances – understood as the stuff which remains with people for years, even lifetimes.
Despite the thematic consistency between Bark Your Head Off and Hop Along’s previous output, there is a noticeable shift in their sound; the music feels lighter, shedding much of the noise and blunt intensity of the band’s older work and opting for a more restrained compositional style. The technical skill of each member is obvious but exercised less wildly; there are fewer rowdy guitar solos, and Quinlan’s delivery is less ferocious, though her voice retains its characteristic sandpaper-like quality and astonishing emotional potency. While far from a direct transition to pop, the album certainly presents Hop Along at their most accessible, and the decision to slightly relax the aggression of their previous albums will perhaps alienate a portion of their audience. However, it also allows the band to convey prettier moments with more conviction, particularly on the gentle, folky ‘How You Got Your Limp’ and ‘Look of Love’, which culminates in a blissful jam of angelic backing vocals and guitars that seem to wash over each other.
Flirtations with synthesisers, drum machines, and vocoders feel less essential but add a pleasant sense of variety to the band’s textures
As if to compensate for their breezier-than-usual style, the band chooses to incorporate a wealth of new instrumentation that fits into their soundscape with surprising elegance. String arrangements on tracks like ‘Prior Things’ and ‘Not Abel’ feel like natural extensions of their rustic sound, rather than clumsy ornamentations; in particular, the thicket of harp and violins on the first half of ‘Not Abel’, as well as Quinlan’s vocal approach, feel indebted to the theatrical bent of Joanna Newsom’s music. Flirtations with synthesisers, drum machines, and vocoders feel less essential, but add a pleasant sense of variety to the band’s textures, especially in the watery keys of ‘How You Got Your Limp’ and the clattering percussion that introduces ‘The Fox in Motion’.
There are weak points here and there – tracks four through six deserve better endings than the fadeouts they get – but they feel insignificant in comparison to the album’s many highlights. Hop Along challenge themselves with bigger, bolder arrangements while retaining their strengths in terrific songcraft, thoughtful lyricism and precise, electrifying performances; Bark Your Head Off, Dog is an exhilarating, evocative listen and a worthy addition to the catalogue of one of the decade’s most compelling rock groups. Quinlan sings knowing that her bleakest thoughts and memories will always be with her, but she and her bandmates are as adept as ever at channelling those feelings into something captivating.