Review Summary: Hop Along continue to thrill.
Sometimes a song arrives precisely when you need it.
Allegations have recently surfaced against the religious school I attended for ten years, from ages five to sixteen. The accusations are mostly of sexual abuse, although corporal punishment was also practiced there. Disturbing as they are, the abuses themselves are not what has stuck with me these past few weeks. Multiple victims have come forward, and several of their stories shared an unnerving similarity: someone walked in, saw what was happening, and then walked back out without taking action or telling anyone what they had seen. To my knowledge, I never witnessed anything, although it is certainly possible that I did when I was too young to realize what I was seeing. But I can’t help wondering about what I would have done if I had stumbled upon some sort of abuse when I was fifteen or sixteen. Would I have walked away?
So it was a little jarring to hear Hop Along’s “Powerful Man” in the midst of my soul-searching. Frances Quinlan tells the story of how, when she was eighteen years old, she did not intervene when she witnessed a father beating his young son after school. The shi
tty thing is that she didn’t do anything wrong
, necessarily. She and a friend searched the school until they found a teacher, someone entrusted to handle that type of situation. But the teacher was dismissive and acted as if they had inconvenienced her. And I’m sure mostly she was feeling scared, just like those two girls. She was no doubt in the wrong, but one of the song’s defining lines comes right at the beginning, before she even enters the story: “I was the only other adult around.” Frances was old enough to know what was happening and old enough to know that she could and should do something about it.
It’s always bracing to hear people sing about their regrets, let alone their biggest
regret. In fact, has any other musician ever implicated his or her own self as starkly in song before? There are plenty of honest songwriters out there, but to my ears at least, this seems like something new. Then again, Hop Along has always been a thrilling band, and Quinlan has always been one of the most exciting songwriters working today, with a keen lyrical mind and a supremely powerful voice. I have been waiting a long time to write about her voice because I wanted to get the words right. I think of it, for whatever reason, in terms that generally seem negative but I promise are not. Her voice is like some small, nagging wound on your body, something that seems unnatural at first. But the wound grows until you can’t ignore it anymore, and then it goes septic. It’s in your blood now, and maybe deeper still. It is a voice that has the power to fundamentally change you.
These songs are less immediate than the ones on Get Disowned
, which seems a little paradoxical given that Painted Shut
is written and presented in a more direct manner. Quinlan’s lyrics are clearer, less wrapped up in themselves, although still just as affecting. They don’t cover as much ground from start to finish as they did before, and they are better for it. Instead, she focuses in on the details, like the setting sun silhouetting the man as he beats his son. The music, for its part, is more expansive than ever, creating a solid platform for the words to stand on. “Powerful Man,” which I can’t seem to stop going back to, is full of musical stanzas that basically keep the story’s time, waiting for Quinlan or anyone
to do something. It is telling, I think, that the song only deviates from its ticking pace once, in a freaked-out guitar bridge where, almost completely in the background, you can hear Quinlan singing the most frustrated “na-na-na’s” ever.
One of the things Hop Along did so well on Get Disowned
was the moment where a song suddenly opened up to reveal itself as something more, particularly on the title track, which continues to be one of the single most impressive songs I have ever heard. Here, “Waitress” and “Texas Funeral” seem to be the best examples of this, with these great passages that drop the bottom out from under the song, leaving Quinlan to sink or swim, whichever is more compelling. In the chorus of “Waitress,” she swims beautifully, at times seeming to clear the water entirely. But in “Texas Funeral,” she sinks
for these brief, gorgeous moments early in the song that I suppose you could call choruses if you forget everything you think you know about what a chorus should sound like. These little flashes of songwriting ingenuity are too numerous to count on Painted Shut
, and they make each listen into something exciting.
While “Powerful Man” gives me a lens through which to view myself, I also keep thinking about the album’s title. Paint is generally meant to make something better, to remedy imperfections. As a veteran house painter, Quinlan would know. But as the title suggests, too much paint can be detrimental. Windows and doors get stuck. It’s an interesting idea to think about, that by trying to improve something you are actually making it difficult to access, if not closing it off completely. I think about my time at school, about things that happened and didn’t happen, and how wondering about these things has perhaps closed off a part of myself. Mostly I think about whether I would have shut my eyes to abuse when I was fifteen, or even now, when I am older but probably not too different. You can’t know what you would do. But you can know what you would want to do, and you can hope that when the times comes, you’ll be more powerful than the awful thing that is staring into your eyes.