They were coy little things when they began — back when the world bid adieu to Don Draper and people booked stays at The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. They took a spirit ride down to the slower states when they kept their sunshine streak a-glowing later that year — the same year love won. And they sprinkled melodies like milestones when Lady Liberty grieved in the time the history-making commander-in-chief formally handed his keys to that odious someone new.
Now, with the launch of their sophomore offering Bambi, the grown-up-but-not-burnt-out Minnesota-incepted indie rock band Hippo Campus continue to echo the traits of the titles they choose: This time around, they’re a captivating mix of coquettish yet elusive, sagacious yet laissez faire, bright-eyed yet ready to bolster the bourgeoisie, pull to pieces the patriarchy, and teach about the dangers of toxic masculinity all before breakfast. (Avocado toast, ‘natch, because we’re all Millennials here.)
This is to say that Bambi is a patchwork of sorts, a mixed bag that meanders not aimlessly, but as if it knows stops along the way are necessary, that self-reflection is a medicine, that time is more often than not on our side. This is to say that Hippo Campus has matured a great deal since their Bashful Creatures days, but has brought to Bambi the cherry-sweet threadline of playfulness found in their teenhood (the foursome and their de facto fifth member are only young 20-somethings, though their wise words age them slightly) that acts as a fizzy digestif to their more mature main courses. This is to say that Bambi is a manifold delight.
Bambi opens in a way not unlike the whole universe was born: silence, and then sound. The album’s kickoff track, a cosmic tune called “Mistakes,” is surreal and atmospheric — beginning with the trifle cake-layered vocals from frontman Jake Luppen (a unique talent whose lilting pipes will stick to the sides of your skull, make a home in your memory, and greet you most mornings) that call to mind Gregorian chants and ending with the round-vowel lyrics that rest in the song’s underbelly. “Mistakes” evokes divinity and stained glass windows and the Garden of Eden before Luppen reaches through the misty void with the twin lines, “Sometimes, mistakes / Sometimes, mistakes.” It all melts down into butterscotch jazz candy courtesy of instrumentalist DeCarlo Jackson, whose talents crackle deliciously across the album’s many apexes. Undeniably, “Mistakes” makes one hell of an impression.
From the cosmos, Bambi brings it down to Earth with the 8-bit-y little ditty “Anxious,” penned by bassist Zach Sutton in his first writing effort for Hippo Campus, that explores the nameless complexities of social anxiety. Featuring beats that drip down the starry ceiling, the number-two track transcends a single plane, transporting listeners to the stars as it carries on, evermore swathed in swirls of trumpet sounds and perfectly punctuated by flashes of drummer Whistler Allen’s always-tasty percussion. Sutton’s words feel safe in Luppen’s possession, as the singer takes particular care in delivering the distinct passion the bridge calls for: “Tried screaming but I won’t believe it / I’ll tell them what they want to hear then.”
A staccatoed, frenetic tune that begs closed eyes, raised arms, and hip sways of the Lisa Simpson variety, Bambi’s third track “Doubt” features the same vulnerability “Anxious” does, but dresses it in a different garment. Luppen candidly ponders the push-pull of modern relationships (“Love, is it love? / We got trouble keeping up”) and hints at the upshots of monogamy (“Who can say you’re the one / And never doubt it”) throughout the track. But the sugary shellac that encases “Doubt” — the cheeky F-bomb to start, the blippy post-bridge that calls to mind hip underground clubs, the supple chorus that could easily float through the California winds — keeps that somewhat hidden, almost asking listeners to “play it again, Sam” to find the treasure inside. “Doubt” doesn’t so much wear its heart on its sleeve as it does keep it in its front pocket, a state of being that seems to echo Luppen’s own residual reserve to open up too much too soon. (That heart-of-the-country hesitancy, amirite, Midwesterners?)
New-age grooviness incarnate, “Bambi” is both zizzy and dreamy — a testament to the masterful manner in which the band marries magical music to sincere stories Luppen tells in his lyrics. While the frontman is characteristically steadfast and steady here, intoning a tasty tale that rises and falls like a wave, he’s simultaneously more ardent and unequivocal than he’s ever been before. And just like “Doubt” did, “Bambi” blankets its weighty heart (Luppen’s detailing of a spiraling out or a bout of depression: “I feel like my friends are being put through this hell I’m feeling / I think that I’m living, if you could call it living”) in a sunny soundscape. It’s little wonder why Hippo Campus chose this beautiful and bursting number, named for Luppen’s aunt, as the album’s title.
If Luppen’s voice on “Bambi” was buttercream frosting, on “Golden,” it’s the whole damn cake. Luppen, hammocked by Sutton, who all but sets fire to his bass in making “Golden” a sonic sunset, opens up his heart and asks you to look inside it with him when he sings with caramel color, “Why is it I want to change for you? / Why is it I want to see this through? / Maybe I’m sick of sleeping longer nights with lesser feelings.”
This bass-driven bit of bliss is funky seven ways to Sunday, continues Hippo Campus’ trend of juxtaposing heavy themes against airy instrumentation and demonstrates the band’s maturation into unguarded, emotionally intelligent men who understand that feelings aren’t inherently feminine, and that being vulnerable doesn’t make you less of a man, it makes you more of a human.
Tracks five, six, and eight — “Why Even Try,” “Think It Over,” and “Honestly” — succeed for the same reasons: they’re unassuming and emotive with no strings attached. And yet, Luppen glistens on each in different ways: he’s all warm wool and sweater-paws on “Why Even Try,” sonically avant-garde on “Think It Over,” the cool-kid leader of a beach-punk band on “Honestly,” making for a dynamic listening experience one could call the auditory equivalent of watching Tatiana Maslany bring to life a dozen characters on Orphan Black.
Hippo Campus gets hella pissed (at themselves) in “Bubbles,” a fiery track that adorns a skittery structure with pointed vocals before splitting into a thunderstorm of cacophonous noise and aggressive, tear-your-throat-and-rip-the-sky vocals. Contrary to its twee, poppy (literally) name, “Bubbles,” is unquestionably the most hard-hitting, animalistic, downright daring song of this collection — one that will sound capital-I incredible when the guys perform it live, Luppen’s lips pressed up against his mic and his inhibitions checked at the venue’s door.
“Passenger,” the final track on Bambi, takes listeners back to serenity, bringing them down to the supple ground as gently as “Mistakes” sent them floating to an astral body. It feels right that the closer is titled “Passenger,” as we ride shotgun to an all-encompassing experience of sound that slips into a meditation session set in a field full of meadowsweets. “If we ever became / The things we lost / The things we left behind,” Luppen sings to tie up Bambi with a bow. “I would wish for the past / When we were pure / Suffering intertwined.”
A citrus-kissed mélange of angst and anxiety, of joy and jittery nerves, of uncertainty of the future, Bambi is everything, all the time, all at once. (The album and life itself have that in common.) With it, Hippo Campus has proven that they aren’t making music for their core demographic — despite what their Spotify numbers indicate and the kinds of kitschy groups several outlets have likened them to. They aren’t turning out tunes in the prospect of pleasing a certain ring of people who are playing hard to get and haven’t yet fallen for them. They aren’t writing lyrics and strumming guitars and blowing horns and banging drums and selling out shows for you or for me. Hell, in many spots along Bambi’s road it feels like Hippo Campus isn’t even doing it for themselves.
With Bambi, in both its examination into realities most are afraid to confront and its bonafide jam-ability alike, Hippo Campus demonstrates that they’re doing this — cramming their gooey hearts into choruses and their biggest fears into belt-it-out bridges — to connect and create a dialogue. In a time where most have #MeToo stories, where inclusive feminism has gained global traction, where the world’s eyes (and thus a small but vocal minority’s misconceptions and hand-me-down stigmas) have shifted to focus mental health issues, Bambi offers allyhood to the former and a tender, eye-dampening respite to those affected by (and a holds-you-by-the-hands lesson to those with a weak understanding of) the latter.
It’s evident that Hippo Campus didn’t simply craft Bambi to deliver sing-along bangers complemented by pairs of haunting, introspective tunes and then call it a day. The men made it, a well-rounded and winsome second release, for a greater good. For the purpose of capturing our modern world in a cold brew coffee bottle, for the intent to get mouths moving about how we can all be better to each other and kinder to ourselves, for the enjoyment of the unknown and the unnamed. For the world.