Unlocked: Reflect on life and death in Hop Along’s “Happy To See Me”
One of the most powerful moments on Hop Along‘s 2012 album Get Disowned is one of its quietest.
On the second side of a record filled with emotional, cathartic ragers and explosive youth anthems sits the melancholic, haunting ballad called “Trouble Found Me.” Like much of the album, the song abstractly relates the story of a character with schizophrenia – a family friend of frontwoman Frances Quinlan – and follows as he struggles through life, is pushed through hospitals and is generally failed by the healthcare system. “Trouble Found Me” is a point of aching realization of all this: as much for Quinlan the third-person narrator as it is for the character and even the listener who might not know about the story line at play.
This lyric in particular drives it home:
Once I thought being lost was only a part of being young / But the old man in the bed next to your cot was screaming louder than anyone / Saying mama mama mama, little white mice run across my bed while the nurses play poker outside / Oh my God, how is the other guy? I can’t believe someday I’m gonna die.
Quinlan sings that last line – “I can’t believe someday I’m gonna die” – in a whisper, matter-of-factly acknowledging our collective mortality not with fear but rather a resigned uncertainty. In the distance, a slide guitar moans. Is there a greater significance to this aimless trip we’re all on? My exit could be a long ways off, or it could be this week, and it leads me to pretty much the same place in either case. All those questions that keep you up at night, you know?
Hop Along’s excellent sophomore album Painted Shut is out today on Saddle Creek Records, and the band celebrates this Saturday night with a headlining show at Union Transfer. As the week unfolds, you’ll doubtless read a lot out there in the musical-journalistic space about what a bold record it is, how it’s unflinching and energetic, how it unpacks heavy ideas with equally heavy volume and energy. All of those points are absolutely accurate, and we’ll be weighing in on them all week long as we explore the album in Unlocked, The Key’s recurring spotlight on new and significant releases from Philadelphia-area artists.
But for me, again, the most powerful moment on Painted Shut might just be its quietest.
I first saw Quinlan perform “Happy to See Me” during a solo set at Golden Tea House almost exactly a year ago. Though the song is dressed up in beautifully nuanced arrangements on the album version – including a particularly moving harp part by Mary Lattimore – essentially, the album recording remains as the song was that night: unfussy, open, direct and meditating on these same questions of mortality.
Quinlan sings about death like no other. Traditionally speaking, it’s a topic rock and folk singers address with a pervading sense of loss or pain or abandonment and anguish; those feelings felt by the people left behind, who ache from the absence of another in their day-to-day lives. That’s not the perspective Quinlan takes, and building on her realization in “Trouble,” she writes about aging and death as a thing we all get to experience. Possibly even a thing of beauty.
The open of the song finds Quinlan in a cemetery in a moment of personal defeat, pondering the meaninglessness of memorials and a so-called legacy. “All I can tell from this old rock is somebody is buried here,” she sings. “Joggers are the only one coming in and they just keep on going.”
It’s one of a couple cemeteries on Painted Shut and, while others are places of more explicit tragedy, this one becomes almost a place of comfort. Quinlan’s thoughts shift to a father posting motivational videos on YouTube in the early morning hours, of his expressive desire to unquestioningly love every one. Her vocal performance is wonderful, easily the best of her career, inflecting notes with a hushed vibrato that captures the emotion and soul of the situation. Since, let’s face it, we don’t have a lot of time here. So isn’t love and compassion the best use of that time?
This brings us to a moment of clarity, and as the music becomes more melodic and wistful, Quinlan sings with optimism of the end of her life.
On the train home I am hoping that I get to be very old / and when I’m old I’ll only see people from my past and they all will be happy to see me / we all will remember things the same.
It will leave you in tears, but it sounds like a dream. Listen to “Happy to See Me” below, and check back all week on Unlocked as we review the album, explore videos surrounding it, and more.