Final Rating 8/10
Hope is something we all experience, you can feel it so strongly at times yet it always has a tendency to come and go. It’s a cycle, hope at the right time can catapult you into an incredible new part of your life, and a lack of hope at the other times can pull you down into darkness, a place Simon Ward obviously spent a lot of time exploring when writing this album. There is a constant battle between the bright and dark sides of hope throughout the record, it feels blissful and inspiring at times, but tends to consciously wander back into the depths of the darkness just as often. The Strumbellas craft the image of Hope beautifully. The composition and musicianship being the handle, while Ward’s lyrics and vocals are the rough, frayed bristles that put the paint to canvas, creating texture and warmth throughout.
The album opens with the massive hit single Spirits. There’s not much to be said about this one, if you’ve listened to the radio at all in the past 6 months you know everything about this song, it’s huge. Garnering the most air play, and attention The Strumbella’s have received since their inception in 2008 speaks for itself. The second song on the album is Shovels and Dirt, a great song that blends country and indie pop. Laden with a perfectly subtle amount of violin and banjo, the verses are driven mainly by acoustic strumming and Ward’s southern affectation. The song transforms from country to indie pop into the chorus “I got a head full of darkness and darkness is good, cause if we all die young, then we don’t get hurt”. Featuring group vocals and a massive sound it’s hard not to sing along to.
The third track on the album We Don’t Know opens with some raspy crooning from Ward “Well I know it gets harder every single day, and I know my darkness will never go away” before breaking into some gang vocals for the chorus. The song is catchy at times, the gang vocals of the chorus are almost inviting you to join in, but the real treat in the song is the raw vocals Ward lays down on the track. They come across as extremely authentic and powerful, and it’s something that really helps the listener understand the emotions trying to be conveyed. Next on the album comes Wars. This track features more gang vocals, but not nearly as prominent and huge as the previous song. It has a good flow to it and features some great lyrics such as “This world’s a pirate and I’m swimming with the sharks”. A brilliant metaphor, likely stemmed from feeling as if the world’s turned its back on you, but soon followed up by “we all know that the sun will shine, I must go chase this dream of mine”. A prime example of how the album (even within one song) explores the shifts between the positive and negatives associated with hope (or lack thereof).
The album really comes into its own at this point. The fifth track on the album, titled Dog is an infectious folk rock song that you’d expect to hear in a saloon in an old Western film. It features some great southern-style guitar and violin that add a bit of chaos and urgency to the verse as Ward wails “shaky dreams are killing me, I feel the coals of the fire underneath my feet”, before leading into the chorus “I’ll pick you up when this road gets too rough, I’ll be your dog and I’ll be your dog”. The sixth track The Hired Band is one of (if not) the best on the album. It showcases the song writing ability of the band, and the artistic growth we’ve seen from them in recent years, and especially on this album. Mixing in new instruments we haven’t heard from The Strumbellas in the past. It opens with horns and clarinets and a warm southern-style guitar riff, acoustic strumming and the lyrics of the pre-chorus “mama, don’t come looking for me, spinning out of control” and the chorus “and I want you to know, that I’m a lying man, that I’m a trying man, and I want you to know, that I’m a lying man, I’m the hired band” the chorus flows out of Ward so smoothly and beautifully. It’s elegantly complimented by some backing vocal harmonies, with gentle drums and violin. It’s not the most upbeat song on the album, it’s a low-tempo song, but the artistry behind it is extremely impressive. It’s a prime example of the artistic maturity of the band.
Next on the album is the song Young and Wild. It kicks off with a fast tempo right off the hop, before jumping into a guitar riff that you’d expect from Modest Mouse. The song is a full blown riot. It’s a fun, upbeat song that would be impossible to stand still for at a concert. The eighth song on the album titled The Night Will Save Us, is a much more mellow song than its predecessor. The chorus again featuring some easily infectious lyrics. “I’m waiting for the night to save us, I’m waiting for the night to take us, I’m waiting for the night to wake us, I’m waiting for the night to break us”. The next track is a beautiful ballad called I Still Make Her Cry. This one is just Ward and a piano. Featuring beautiful piano chords and lyrics of “I still make her cry, I love to make her cry” and “I can’t sleep, I’m restless, so I think about myself, if I weren’t so selfish, I could hear your calls for help”. It’s a great song that deals with the internal battles that can come along with self-reflection.
The final two songs on the album are the songs David and Wild Sun. The former is a solid folk rock jam, featuring some great work on electric guitar to close out the song and catchy acoustic chords to take you there. The latter is an odd way to end an album titled “Hope” as it seems to descend into darkness to close out the album. At first this confused me, especially with how many times the album seemed to lift you up and generate inspiration, it was hard to comprehend why they wouldn’t end it with a track like Young and Wild which is an upbeat and high tempo song. It was at this point while listening when I realized that theme of Hope was being painted from both sides of the spectrum on this album. It’s not just happy-go lucky songs to make you feel good. It’s a journey through the ups and downs associated with putting your faith into hope. Sometimes what you hope for comes true, and other times you get nothing you expected. “Waiting on a wild sun” can be interpreted in a lot of ways, perhaps it’s waiting for the light to shine through the darkness. Perhaps it’s in reference to the fact that you can have your hopes and dreams but ultimately the universe control’s your fate. Things beyond your control can grant you opportunities, and just as quickly take them away. It’s hard to say, but perhaps it’s only for Ward and The Strumbellas to know. How you decide to interpret the music lays on you. One thing I can assure you, is that this album is certainly worth a focused listen. You can find something meaningful to take away from it by the end, whether that’s lyrical analysis, self-reflection, a little (or a ton) of hope, or just dancing like a fool in your living room. There’s something for everyone here.