One of the most frustrating aspects of indie music is its fixation on youth. Emotions are limned in juvenile terms, filtering even agony through a prism of nostalgia that prevents so many bands from actually grappling with the present. It’s harder than ever for bands to support themselves through their work, yet only a handful of groups give the impression that they’ve ever had any real world experience with shitty jobs, paying off debt or facing the more complex realities of relationship drama beyond twee puppy-dog love and sudden break-ups. Hop Along’s new album, Painted Shut, is one of the most bracing rock albums in years because it avoids condescending to listeners’ notions of being young adults, even though in the process it captures far more of twenty-something life than just about any other group working today.

“The Knock” opens the record with a paranoid rush. The lyrics unfurl with specificity (“8:45 a.m./ The dream just escaped me again”) before a knock is heard at the door and the person on the other end says, “The witness just wants to talk to you.” It’s impossible to piece together whether the singer has committed a crime, is the victim of one or if it’s just someone at the door handing out Watchtowers. The song, initially chiming and elegant until trebly-yet-pile-driving riffs build to steam kettle release, bristles with a nervous energy, and it prefigures an album that often circles back around to mental illnesses both banal and ruinous.

Two of the songs even take inspiration from musicians laid low by their conditions. “Buddy in the Parade” concerns Buddy Bolden, an early New Orleans jazz fixture who died in an asylum. Excellent mixing overlaps squealing lead guitar lines with methodical riffs and Mark Quinlan’s never-quite-on-tempo percussion, they generate a schizophrenic atmosphere of being unable to privilege one of these elements of the music above the other until everything, without ever rising too much in volume, feels deafening. “Horseshoe Crabs” sees the band return to its roots to describe the folkie Jackson C. Frank, a man covered by legends like Simon & Garfunkel and Nick Drake but who nonetheless lived in squalor. The lyrics are a catalogue of madness, a mighty struggle to hang on, first, to creative success, then, when that fails, musical ability, and, at last, sanity. Few lyrics summarize an artist’s nightmare like an in-character recollection of a fan asking Frank to play him something and the musician being barely able to get out a tune to the now-disillusioned kid.

Elsewhere, the band explores anxiety in more common terms, such as the ability to forget one’s issues and problems. “Texas Funeral” sets strikingly observant, ruminative lyrics to region-appropriate blues. It’s a work of personal criticism but also social commentary, so that lines like “You’ve inherited the wind, fool/ I hope you enjoy it” work equally as a kiss-off to a bad relationship and a perfect encapsulation of millennial angst. “Powerful Man” recounts the horrifying experience of being 18 and watching a father abuse his child while being too scared to intervene, bearing witness to trauma and feeling too weak to stop it. Closer “Sister Cities” also deals with strong men, some benign, others abhorrent, though the song’s multiple memories and false endings create an image of urban decay out of these glimpses of lonely, unbalanced individuals.

These songs reveal an increased sophistication in Hop Along’s song craft, not an abrupt lurch into rich composition but a keen ear for arranging the band’s elements of heavy rock and folk earnestness into something complex and impressionistic. But the x factor in the band’s sound remains, of course, Frances Quinlan’s voice, a marvel of seat-edge tension that mixes the caterwauling unpredictability of Björk’s wails with the shredded-wheat vocal cords of Paul Westerberg. Every song operates on the peril that this may be the time Quinlan finally pushes her larynx one crusted howl too far and collapse into herself like a dying sun. Her rasped shrieks, bluesy howls and insouciant moans lend every song, every verse. Will she maintain her tone for even a few seconds, or will a detached, flat line explode without warning into a terrified scream?

All of these elements combine in “Waitress,” the best song on the record and maybe the best thing the band has yet recorded. If there is any justice in this world, “Waitress” will go down as one of the great songs about entering adulthood in the early 21st century, of leaving college so sure of your preordained success only to scramble madly to even land a service job. Quinlan’s voice isn’t at its most frenzied here, but the song does find her at her most ragged and devastated. Her singing reflects precisely the internal maelstrom of feeling too good for your job even as the people you wait on every day dispel that notion with a simple look, a constant judgment that makes clear how unimpressive you really are. It even captures the way that the stress of such jobs can override these existential hang-ups with simpler realities of exhaustion, like why that last table won’t go the hell home after closing time when you’ve been on your feet and sporting a plastic smile for eight hours. Painted Shut may touch upon far more chaotic mental states, but in “Waitress” it nails a generational anxiety with a fraction of the pomp and satisfaction of other pretenders to the zeitgeist throne. And with this record, Hop Along might finally be poised to take that seat.

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