Listening to Hippo Campus’ discography in chronological order is to witness growth first-hand. If you take their two 2015 EP’s ‘Bashful Creatures‘ and ‘SOUTH‘, you can capture the youthful exuberance of a band bursting with ideas. Their 2017 full-length debut embraced meditation, diluting the energetic punches with spacious interludes. Hippo Campus attempt to free themselves of the second album syndrome by striking while the iron is hot. Some 17 months after their debut, the Minnesotan band do not grow per se, rather they swell.
Hippo Campus have an admirable idolisation towards spry indie rock tunes. The songwriting is refined, if imperfect. A consistent use of staccato melodies dominates their discography and continues to underline the sophomore record ‘Bambi’. As the title suggests, ‘Bambi’ is youthful and struggling to adjust. It is innocent and weak-legged – a majority of the songs rely on production and sonic surprises to compensate for the inoffensive and uninteresting ideas.
On previous efforts Hippo Campus employed guitars as your generic beanie-wearing, clean-shaven indie rock band would. However their technique was commendable; songs like ‘Violet’ may have flirted with mediocrity but the choruses were infectious, sunny and more affecting than most.
With ‘Bambi’, Hippo Campus make a concerned attempt at broadening their horizons, opening their sound with more instrumentation and adventurous structures. On the title track, for example, they trade guitars with a sample loop and incorporate further electronic layers. Their debut was far from vintage guitar rock, but ‘Bambi’ is determined to elaborate on the complexities.
As the dust settles on the album, it is apparent that Hippo Campus have succeeded in creating a consistent tone. Similar to ‘landmark’, the follow-up is a coherent listen. Furthermore it is notably shorter. 10 songs and 33 minutes long, it shaves a good 10 minutes off the run-time. Consequently the project is tighter and efficient, the songs well-tempered. The embracing of electronic textures may be contemporary, but lacks the purpose that generally embodies the modern usage. Acts like Bon Iver and Kanye West use vocoder effects to highlight flaws, to punctuate emotion. Hippo Campus are implementing it because it sounds pretty. That in itself is fine, but in the context of the album it is uneasy – as a mature sophomore, it is less an instrument, more a short-cut to an emotional standpoint that the songs do not gravitate towards.
Opener ‘Mistakes’ is a drab start; the pitched-down, hymnal vocals are bland and emotionless. While lyrics like, “I’ll steal your heart” are sung with sly charm, it is cold and unremarkable – a mistake, one might say. The vocals, notably, are out of position. Unlike the springy falsetto commonly associated with tracks like ‘boyish’, the low and over-produced vocals are not so much mysterious as they are boring.
On the other hand, ‘Bubbles’ – a real highlight – is a perfect example of what could have gone right. The first 83 seconds operate in restraint; a verse and refrain bounce off each other twice and are contempt in the matter, like a white tie banquet: civilised and poised. Just short of a minute-and-a-half in, the tides change. A flurry of guitars charge through the wooden doors, tables overthrown and distinguished guests are panicked. As Jake Luppen sings: “Because what I can’t accept Is the truth that I don’t love you”, the distortion on his voice intensifies to a grind. His voice is hard to decipher, much like the lyrics themselves. Even on repeat listens, the entrance is too sudden to prepare. A thrilling song, especially for Hippo Campus. The only occurence where Hippo Campus’ ambition meets the execution.
‘Anxious’ and ‘Doubt’ are the yin and yangs of the record. Paired back-to-back, the titles correctly imply the songs relations. The latter is blissful: a sweet head-swayer with a dreamy chorus (“Love, is it love? We got trouble keeping up”) that wraps up an otherwise spurted melodic introduction. The former, in contrary, is lavish in its writing. The song splits like a grand Broadway musical – a bridge and chorus sung at different pitches intertwine into one passionate climax.
Given the refusal to turn away from the Sound of the Future, ‘Why Even Try’ is a much-welcomed break. The acoustic guitar that opens and closes the track reminisce of early Bombay Bicycle Club while the wistful chorus would have Ben Gibbard frothing at the mouth.
The stand-outs are surprisingly the singles that promoted the record. The aforementioned title track is a lovable gem, with Luppen confronting his mental health and the effects it has on those he loves. “I want to run from everything, but my legs won’t work”, sighs the singer, a feeling many of his young followers can relate to. ‘Golden’ is the most recognisable Hippo Campus song on the album. An optimistic love song with lyrics that may revolt but are too cute and whimsical to kick up a fuss about (“Why is it I want to change for you? Why is it I want to see this through?”).
It may seem a stretch but where bands like (stick with me) Radiohead and Bon Iver use electronic elements to build on their guitar-centred melodies, the songs expand. In the case of Hippo Campus, the band pigeon-hole themselves further into a corner; the album is isolated and unintentionally aimless. Hippo Campus are very young (vocalist Luppen is 23) and consequently the coming-of-age album is uneasily premature. It is not that the band do not have the talent to release something as textured and touching as, say, 22, A Million, it is that they do not have the intent and drive to do so. For a band named Hippo Campus, this sure is a forgettable album.