April 2nd: On Hop Along’s Get Disowned
There are three stages to a breakup. There are the weeks or months leading up to it, when one person in the relationship knows things are ending, and the other knows only that something is wrong. Then there is the fallout: the day or the week or the month of scorched earth, burying what once was, planting the seeds for what comes next. And then there is the aftermath.
Hop Along’s first album, 2012’s Get Disowned, is a record about the first of these states. In the album’s closer, the eponymous “Get Disowned,” Frances Quinlan sings, “Greater than my love / gone out the door: / the love that I’ve ignored.” The song acts as a capstone to the nine that have come before, lamenting the pain contained within them while also mourning their happiness, the moments that one cannot, and should not, forget. It’s an album about separating yourself from the past, but doing so in a way that retains its brightest parts. It’s an album I’ve needed over the last few months, and which has provided for me. In abundance.
In about a week, I’m getting a tattoo on my left pectoral of the last line from “Tibetan Pop Stars,” the most well-known song off Get Disowned. “I obey an average law,” Frances Quinlan sings, just after belting out, “My love is average.” And it is. This is what Get Disowned is all about. All our love is average. We’re all just trying our best, and hurting each other along the way. We’re ignoring the people who love us, and loving the people who don’t. We’re mourning what once was, and which we hoped would one day be. We’re no longer young, but we’re not yet old. And so we sing along with every one of Frances Quinlan’s lyrics, which she delivers with a vocal variety that’s greater than that of any singer I can think of, and which her subject matter demands. Love requires that one screams, that one croons, that one’s raspy whisper cuts off at the last. Love requires that one celebrates, but also that one laments.
I’m mourning, right now. Hence the brevity of this write-up. I’m working on separating myself from a relationship that defined nearly eleven months of my life, for better or for worse. Mostly for better, I think, even if I’m not in a state to recognize as much right now. And Hop Along is helping me with this separation. And Get Disowned is helping me mourn it, and to move on, and to be as gentle in my anger and loss as I am able to be.
Obviously, you should listen to it. Get Disowned is almost certainly going to end up as my favorite album of this year, and its competition consists only of Hop Along’s subsequent albums. And when you listen to it, try to learn. Get Disowned has lessons to teach. And they’re far happier, and far sadder, than you might think. Its ten songs will devastate you. And you should listen to them nevertheless.
April 3rd: Submitted somewhere!
April 4th: On Hop Along’s Painted Shut
Painted Shut, Hop Along’s sophomore album, trades reaction for reflection. Gone are the songs about loss and looking back. Separation is an instinctual, powerful response to trauma, and hence my preference for 2012’s Get Disowned. But inhabiting a moment possesses a different sort of power. It is possible, as Painted Shut proves again and again, to fight against the present while also bearing witness to it. Finding grief in joy, humor in hurt. Sitting in the midst of chaos, taking it in—and then rising above it. Or blowing it up.
Both musically and thematically, Painted Shut is a more mature album than Get Disowned. It possesses the same unpredictability, the same capacity to transform suddenly into something else, but now it feels more purposeful. The variety on display in a song like “Laments” has collapsed into the single, redefining moment in the middle of “Waitress” when Quinlan erupts. The journey depicted in “Tibetan Pop Stars,” Get Disowned’s best song, is distilled into “Well-dressed,” my favorite song off Painted Shut. In lieu of the sudden shift at the former song’s end, where Quinlan admits her fallibility after lashing out, the catharsis at the finale of “Well-dressed” feels inevitable. The song begins with an image of a woman, escaping: “Well-dressed, but walking in the wrong direction.” And it’s with this same image that it ends, only now we know more clearly how Quinlan and company feel about this scene. Even if it’s in the wrong direction, escape means liberation. On Painted Shut, Hop Along has found a direction, and they don’t care if it’s the wrong one. They know where they’re going, and their second album is an invitation to us to follow along.
Of course, the album is the right sophomore effort for Hop Along. It’s one of many correct directions they might have taken. They’re that sort of band—one with their roots in the punk of The Pixies, the rock of The Cranberries, but with indie leanings that place them in the same camp as bands like Bright Eyes or Band of Horses. They could have leaned into Get Disowned’s chaos, exacerbating it until almost unpleasant. But instead they chose polish. Although I like their first album more, Painted Shut is a triumph. It’s an exciting evolution for a band who accomplished close to perfection on Get Disowned, and it represents a necessary bridge to an even more exciting future.
April 5th: On Midsommar
After watching Hereditary for the first time, I parked my car in the front yard of my childhood home, and waited. Maybe twenty feet of grass and asphalt separated me from the side door. I was twenty two, living at home once more, and afraid not only for my life, but for the lives of my parents, for my sisters, for my cats. It was just past two AM. On my drive home, after passing a deer on the shoulder of a wooded road, I had imagined jerking the wheel, swerving into the trees, my head impaled upon a low branch. Life, as Hereditary proves, especially the life of a family, can collapse upon itself in an instant. The Satanic/demonic trappings of the film paled in comparison to the pain that came before.
Mustering up my resolve, I sprinted across the lawn, made it inside intact, my heart loud in my ears. The house was quiet, and I slept poorly. And although I slept better in the nights ahead, the fear created by Hereditary remained, and has still not gone away: some acts were unforgivable. Things could fall apart, yes. And if—when—they did, there would be no picking up the pieces.
Except sometimes an end is not The End. One has to reckon with what they’ve done, what’s been done to them, and go on in the face of the pain that is most certainly on its way. This is the preoccupation of Ari Aster’s second film, 2019’s Midsommar. We follow Dani and Christian, a young couple whose relationship is ending. They’ve accompanied Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle to his ancestral commune, where a midsummer celebration that occurs only once every ninety years is set to take place. As the events of the film unfold, what begins as a story about a crumbling relationship quickly escalates into the folk horror promised by its eerie pastoral setting. One by one, Christian’s friends earn their comeuppance, each meeting a fittingly gory end. The last to go, of course, is Christian, who has finally proven himself irredeemable in Dani’s eyes, and has nothing left to do but die.
At its core, Midsommar is a story about pain, and what we will do to resist it. The film opens with the murder-suicide of Dani’s sister and parents. She reacts to this trauma by clinging to Christian—who, instead of breaking up with her as he’d previously intended, stays at her side. He does this out of a sense of obligation, yes, but also out of cowardice, avoiding the inevitable guilt of their separation’s aftermath. And Dani isn’t entirely innocent, either, although her clinging to Christian inspires empathy in us rather than contempt. It is a natural, biological phenomenon to try to avoid trauma.
The ubiquity of this fear is what makes Midsommar so frightening, I think. Our aversion to pain is completely natural; it’s the commune’s acceptance of pain that is an aberration. We should react as the characters of Hereditary do, or as every American (even Dani, at least until the end) does in Midsommar, and resist trauma, fight against it with every breath. Or perhaps we should not. Perhaps we should jump off a cliff at the fine old-ish age of seventy-two, and plunge. Perhaps we should sit cross-legged in an open field and await what might come. Perhaps we should break off a relationship the moment we know that things are terminally, irrevocably wrong. No matter what else might be on its way.
April 6th: On Borne
If Annihilation, the first entry in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, represents a journey inward, Borne turns this inquiry on its head. The end of Annihilation (spoiler) finds the novel’s protagonist (known only as the biologist) descending the spiraling stairs of the lighthouse at the story’s literal and metaphorical center, pursuing the Crawler that inhabits its depths, trying to decipher what it is that makes her human. The end of Borne (spoiler), by contrast, takes what has so far been a very focused, personal tale and pans out, blowing Borne’s world’s doors open, introducing parallel realities, replaceable memories, a sinister Company not nearly as dead as we would like to think. Borne begins with a woman, Rachel, acting as a mother to a creature that is not even a creature at all, but a product, a combination of biology and technology she’s christened Borne. It ends with a multiverse, and a mystery I hope VanderMeer explores (or has already explored) in future works.
This isn’t to say that Borne doesn’t succeed on its own merits, as more than a first entry in a fascinating world. VanderMeer’s prose is as luminous and laser-point precise as it’s ever been. His descriptions of Borne are unflinching, but never linger in the way a lesser writer’s might be liable to. Depicting the anemone-like creature during one of its early conversations with Rachel, he writes, “There came a long pause and everything about Borne shut down until he was just a gray shape. Even the eyes went away.” VanderMeer treats the other relationship at the heart of the story—that between Rachel and the mysterious Wick—with an equally deft touch, reducing their mutual dependence to a series of detached, desperate copulations: “Wick. Wick and Rachel. Portrait of us. Wick and I, at opposite ends of the frame, half out of the picture.” It’s this subtlety that allows VanderMeer to pull the same trick he does in Annihilation (and also Authority and Acceptance, its sequels), plunging into Rachel’s backstory only as the novel reaches its climax, revealing the depth of her love for Wick, and Wick’s love for her, when the story forces the pair to acknowledge this love themselves. One can accurately describe Borne as an apocalyptic portent, a warning about biotechnology gone wrong, an allegory about greed in which a titanic bear named Mord and a mysterious figure known only as the Magician fight for control over a dying city. Or they can describe it as a love story, and leave it at that.
I’ve written a lot this past week about stories that balance high-concept settings with basic human needs. One basic need, really: to love, and to be loved. It’s this need that makes both the Annihilation and Borne work. It’s this balance I’m trying to strike in my own writing. Even in a world gone weird, one still yearns.
April 7th: No, You Absolutely May Not Cancel Your Comcast Xfinity Subscription, Especially Not If You’re Unemployed and Single and Twenty-Five Years Old
We are sorry to see you go! We take our customers’ happiness and security seriously, so we’ll give you a call in two days to verify this request, and also just to check in.
Before you go, though, a question: are you sure you wish to cancel your Comcast Xfinity subscription? Because based upon your recent search history, it looks like you’ll be repeating the mistakes of your past in no time at all. She doesn’t miss you, man! And even if she did, she certainly wouldn’t be tweeting about it! If you’re going to use the Internet to self-flagellate, at least do so in pursuit of a job!
Seriously, though, moving back in with the ol’ ‘rents is nothing to be ashamed of, especially in this day and age. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of people aged 18 to 29 were living with at least one of their parents as of July 2020. Our own analytics, which indicate that the number of people attempting to cancel their Comcast Xfinity subscription has grown by at least 13% over the last year, reflect this trend. As far as you’re concerned, it didn’t make sense to pay for two subscriptions when you were with her, and it doesn’t make sense now that you’re crashing on the couch upon which you first reached, albeit barely, second base!
We’ve therefore put together a trio of plans for the depressed Millennial/Gen-Zer looking to get back on their feet, which you can peruse at your leisure below.
- The Rebound ($39.99/mo.): Need downloads? We’ve got downloads. And we’re giving them to you at 100 mbps while you work on getting yourself back out there, friend. And once you are back out there, and then are back out there no longer, and locked down once more, we’ll still be delivering this speed to you, and for the exciting price of $39.99 a month. We’re not going anywhere, friend. Not even when you find your next partner, partner. This deal is for life.
- The Transplant ($99.99/mo.): You’re leaving. You’re setting out. We get it. It’s okay. With this deal, you’ll be able to afford all the Internet you need in your temporary place of residence, as well as all the Internet you need to get where you’re going. Manitoba? Fairbanks? We’ve got your back. You’re set for the far north, where no man save Jack London or Chris McCandless has gone. Until you get there, though, Comcast Xfinity is the provider for you.
- The Homebody ($19.99/mo.): Yes, your parents already have an Internet provider. No, you’re not going anywhere. Ever. But won’t it feel nice to feel like you’re contributing? Even if you’re not?
If none of these packages appeal to you, rest assured, there’s no shame in keeping your current subscription. Which is to say: hold out hope. One night many nights from now, she’ll call you (not drunk, just checking in), and you (drunk, just about ready to check out) will be there to answer the call. And Comcast Xfinity will be there, too, permitting this sorry scene to play out.
And if the above option doesn’t suit your needs either, well, tough luck. There’s literally no way to cancel your Comcast Xfinity subscription. Read the fine print. You’re stuck with your choices, man. It’s high time to figure out a plan for what’s next.
April 8th: On Hell House LLC
There is a type of story in which trouble finds someone. This is the story most often told in horror fiction, whose everyman protagonists have no greater aim than to settle down with a family, to fall in love, to live a quietly fulfilling life. See The Conjuring for the Platonic ideal of this idea. Happy family moves to a rural homestead. Trouble finds them. Horror ensues.
Then there is the type of story in which someone goes looking for trouble, and finds it. This is the story told in Hell House LLC, which follows five friends—members of the eponymous Hell House LLC—as they set up and operate a haunted house attraction in the infamous Abaddon Hotel. Thanks to The Blair Witch Project, it’s a set-up familiar to the found footage genre, but rarely executed as well as Blair Witch did it, or as well as it’s done here. Where similar films falter, mistaking a series of jump scares for mounting tension, Hell House grounds its demonic hijinks in a believable tale of five friends with a long past, and all the interpersonal messiness that comes with such a shared history. As the film reaches its tragic climax, then, it’s less the paranormal presence at the heart of the Abaddon that keeps us watching than the fate of Hell House’s five friends, who by this point are too far in to turn back.
The central conflict of the friend group is twofold. The first revolves around Alex, the CEO of Hell House LLC, whose ambition pushes the group to press on within Abaddon long after its demonic presence has revealed itself. The second involves Paul, the primary documentarian of the quintet, whose feelings for Sara, Alex’s longtime girlfriend, creates a rift at the center of the group. As with all well-told stories, the two conflicts dovetail into each other, reciprocally escalating the film’s stakes until the company’s destruction is guaranteed. Each time Alex accuses the others of cowardice, Paul becomes more overt and insistent in his flirting with Sara; each time Paul threatens Alex’s authority, Alex grows more committed to seeing Hell House LLC’s most recent venture through to the end.
Hell House LLC’s characters—specifically their central trio—have no one to blame for their fate save themselves, and this is why the film works as well as it does. As far as tropes go, the notion that one must be (if only subconsciously) open to possession in order to be possessed is among the best, and one Hell House LLC is wise to stick to. Its weakest moments arise when it falls into the same traps as other found footage films, forgoing the group’s interpersonal conflicts for the uninspired shocks and too-clever-for-its-own-good narrative embedding ubiquitous to the genre. This is a lesson all films should take to heart, and one which I myself am going to do my best not to forget. Cleverness is no substitute for human emotions. We do not watch or read or listen to a thing seeking to be impressed. We do so to feel.