Now that I'm not in Paris I don't have as much access to amazing performances, but I still would like to keep up with the writing I've been working on. I've spent the past two years as an art creator, making new performances and taking them all over the country. Now I'm taking a little break from being a creator to be a consumer of art. And I suppose one of the important things about being a consumer is to not just react to something on a surface level, but to be critical and thoughtful toward it too. So upcoming will be thoughts and critiques on the many things I've been coming into contact with, and how I compose those thoughts into something resembling a coherent analysis.
A coworker and I spend a lot of time on the line at work sharing new music we've encountered. We've been talking about the incredible music coming out of Philadelphia right now and he introduced me to this band that has now been accompanying me on all my walks through town for the past week. Painted Shut is a graceful and poetic existential crisis. Powerfully sung by Frances Quinlan, Painted Shut is the third studio album from Philadelphia based band Hop Along. The album is a collection of directly or obliquely personal stories, allegorical references, and homages to forgotten music legends. It questions the legacies we leave and how we will be remembered, or just as likely, forgotten. The songs are preoccupied with how we are viewed through the eyes of others. Quinlan's voice is the sonic representation of this inner struggle. Often her voice becomes unrestrained and her calm, melodious singing breaks into that beautifully desperate and vulnerable scream. It shatters your heart and your resolve every time.
Two biographical songs, Buddy in the Parade and Horseshoe Crabs tell the stories of musicians Charles "Buddy" Bolden and Jackson C. Frank respectively. Both musicians were considered influential, but eventually suffered breakdowns and a loss of confidence and passed into obscurity. The forgotten haunt this album: an unmarked grave in Happy to See Me, an old man in Sister Cities hiding behind red flowers and a painted shut window, a West Virginia waitress in I Saw My Twin who is left behind as the band moves on to its next tour location. Quinlan laments the connections that were never made, how its our own fear and indifference toward forging bonds with the outliers that cause these people to disappear.
In contrast to Quinlan's sadness for the forgotten is her fear of being remembered infamously. Guilt and shame over inaction permeate many of the songs. In Powerful Man the teenage Quinlan does nothing as a father abuses his son for looking at her and in Sister Cities the "false friend" keeps his back turned as the protagonist of the song learns "the fierceness of man / Again, again, again!" In the song Waitress Quinlan sings from the perspective of a waitress who is connected to one of her customers through a shared relationship. The other partner comes into the restaurant to be served and the waitress worries, "She must've known who I was / the worst possible version of what I had done." The waitress knows this woman will only recognize her for her weaker and more shameful moments and this causes her to fear how this other woman judges her, but just as quickly she rationalizes her actions through the same assumptions made in so many of the other songs; is she really important enough to be remembered? Because "by the time it's old / a face will have been seen / one and a half million times / ...and I'll share a very common poverty." The poverty of being forgotten, because as she sings in Buddy in the Parade, "Fool, all you touch on this turning dream / is either gonna be burned or buried."
Just as many of the characters turn their backs on the suffering of others, Quinlan also turns her back on religion, but questions this choice. She is annoyed by having her morning coffee disturbed by Jehovah's Witnesses in the song The Knock, but by the end of the song she notices, "did you see the look on the face of the kid he brought with him? / I never once seen a teenager look so radiant." She is moved to tears by the calm and self-assuredness brought to this teenager through his religion and questions why she didn't talk to them. The other character in the song however questions her sentimentality, telling her "everyone is suffering." Quinlan shys away from religion again in I Saw My Twin when she sees a nun eating in a West Virginia Waffle House. Her ambivalence toward religion leads her to call the nun "a great black hole of providence," but as an afterthought she still asks someone to "please take pity upon the heart that lives in me." She is turning away from a religious answer to all her questioning, but she still hopes some sort of providence will intervene to give her clarity.
The song that ties this whole album together, and perhaps answers all of Quinlan's questions for itself is Happy to See Me. In this song the narrator battles with trying to change her mind on how she views situations in her life, because just like the danger of "a defeated army headed home," if her feelings remain bitter and defeated she will only leave destruction in her wake. There are times though when the memories get the best of her and "tumble from the bridge / up and into the dark / thought up by a mind that must have been / a sort of sinister question mark." The song leaves us with the narrator on a train, hoping that in the end whenever she sees people from her past they will be happy to see her. She hopes that just as she is trying to do, people can be strong enough to allow their love to outweigh all the painful memories that cause them to trip upon their moralities. Just like the YouTubing father in the middle of this song, she is also saying, "People of the world, nobody loves you / half as much as I / half as much as I am trying to." Maybe she hasn't quite succeeded in working it all out, but the point is she is trying, because in the end we all end up shouting into whatever void will carry our desperate thoughts, hoping maybe someone will remember us fondly, if for nothing else, at least for how hard we tried.