BARK YOUR HEAD OFF, DOG by Hop Along
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “How Simple,” “Somewhere a Judge,” “Not Abel,” “The Fox in Motion,” “What the Writer Meant,” “Look of Love,” “Prior Things”
This January we lost the beloved frontwoman of The Cranberries, Dolores O’Riordan, at the tender age of 46. Her unignorable, wayward lilt was wrought with sadness, resolve, and frustration, sometimes battling for a turn all at once. And so, O’Riordan and her music worked as an escape from the panopticon that is adolescence and a balm to all the vicissitudes that entail it. She was an always-on-call therapist, best friend, someone to grow up beside. Her passing was untimely, to say the least, but moreover, it’s another reminder of the mortality of our idols. While I wasn’t old enough to get the full “Cranberries” experience in the 1990s, I fortunately have been able to find my own version: Frances Quinlan and Hop Along.
On their third time around, the Pennsylvanian-bred quartet are still efficiently assembling the vivid vignettes of Quinlan’s mind: family memories, heartbreak, nostalgia, and aging. With Quinlan’s lyrics providing the pictures and her backing band providing the frame, BARK YOUR HEAD OFF, DOG is another quietly stunning album and perhaps their most unnerving. Frances Quinlan is getting older and wants us to know that time waits for nobody, not even O’Riordan.
Quinlan, now at the age of 32, elaborates on the peculiar feelings that come with hitting it big past the quarter-point of her life. On the penultimate “Look of Love,” she sings, “I still dream of spiders crawling across my bed / The present, I have no place in it.” That latter clarification isn’t even necessary with the former line being such a lucid anachronism. Interestingly, while the lyrics all seem very personal to Quinlan, they can speak to what the rest of the band is thinking too. Album opener “How Simple” finds the narrator questioning her own forward momentum: “I suppose . . . one who hasn’t seen / The earlier frames / Could say I am advancing up this road.” Then follows the debate of whether she even wants to be so far along this road: “Like all of a sudden you change / We were covered in each other’s snot / In my childhood bed.”
Hop Along has an arguably flawless discography, but how is a band supposed to be content with recognition on their way to 40? I know my mom would scoff at the idea of calling anything below 40 old, but with everything around us moving and building and advancing so quickly, the earlier you can get merely comfortable, the better—I’m 20, and hearing this kind of consternation from someone as wise beyond their years as Quinlan is frightening.
Not all hope is lost as she delivers all this sage percipience with one of the most beautiful and calming voices in rock. Even the sharpest of revelations are broken to you with the gentlest lulls: “You don’t know I know what’s wrong,” sings Quinlan, speaking as Death herself with all of her cruel, unpredictable scheming on “Somewhere a Judge.” Like O’Riordan, she’s here for us, but she’s not going to hold anyone’s hand, as she continues on “How Simple,” “Don’t worry we will both find out / Just not together.” And hey, if Quinlan’s at “a reserve to drink,” then so are we, so there’s some more consolation.
Quinlan divulges another outlet for life’s brevity: memories. But like alcohol, they prove to be more of a harmful distraction than anything. Any recounting tends to appear as distracting in the song structure, too, though not to a fault as it just enriches her storytelling—we really get inside her head, transported through a swirling consciousness of dreams, memories, and related thoughts or random digressions. This is in no part equally thanks to the virtuosity of Hop Along’s three other members, Frances’s brother, Mark Quinlan, Tyler Long, and Joe Reinhart, who create the arrangements that help vivify the lyrics. There’s a recount of a family vacation to the beach, watching a sick fox “decay in motion,” and pleading her cousin to take her home all commingling throughout “Fox in Motion.” “Look of Love” sees Quinlan revisiting a clashing of “awful relief” and “permanent shame” she felt after an irascible neighborhood dog gets hit by a car. This retrospection hit me fuckin’ hard, reminding me of times when I was just a toddler wishing Hellfire upon anything that hurt my feelings (animate or otherwise) and not realizing the weight of such a thing. But for Quinlan, it was a lesson learned, her “last terror of ignorance.”
Appreciation is due for some bad memories: we live and learn from them. Album closer “Prior Things” is a break-up song, yes, but Quinlan derives one of her most valuable insights from a callous ex: “When you choose to go / I resume my little road.” More or less, it’s a realization to be thankful for the passing of time, as sometimes that’s all we have as a means of healing.
Heartbreak is a big one, but also indelibly tied to the most formative moments of my past is my family. My parents, my sister, my brother, my pets: they all show up. For Quinlan and Hop Along it’s obviously no different, and it represents the strongest moment here. “Not Abel,” while book-ended with fragmented memories of townspeople queuing up before a tent and dad flipping off the camera, has a midsection that feels like a direct commentary on her working relationship with her brother. Elevated by a triumphant basking of guitar and violin, she contemplates the time Cain and Abel “spent growing up as brothers,” wrestling with the fact that jealousy managed to undo even the “tender moments siblings keep secret.” It’s probably impossible (and terrifying) for her to imagine this doomed outcome between her brother and her, especially with their own amicable dynamic.
In an interview with Stereogum, Quinlan commented on the tiny death that comes with putting out a Hop Along project to the world: “It’s theirs now, it’s not mine or ours.” While it was said in a rather somber context, I couldn’t help but appreciate it. Music is a gift and Quinlan, O’Riordan, thank you so much for sharing it with us.