Like the terms and services agreement on the iTunes Store, a disclaimer: I’ve been reporting on the Minnesota-based indie pop band Hippo Campus for over a year-and-a-half. Call me mundane and monotonous, but repeated coverage and concerts provides the chance to see how the group has changed since the release of their first two EPs in 2015.
Jumping from EP to debut album is the sink or swim moment for any musician—a potentially fatal test to see if an artist is a one-hit-wonder or a success story. Hippo Campus took a leap but found balance with the Feb. 24 release of their first album, Landmark.
Falling under the overly general genres of indie-pop-rock and alt-rock gives Hippo Campus the wiggle room to extend their sound while staying true to their original fanbase composed largely of teenage girls and twentysomethings. Landmark is the perfect opportunity for the band to define themselves, and the band didn’t hold back.
Unlike an overly dramatic 40-something-year-old dad going through a midlife crisis, Hippo Campus doesn’t try and pull a 180 and completely reinvent themselves in Landmark. Songs such as “Way It Goes,” “Vines,” “Simple Season” and “Tuesday” carry a light, upbeat flowy melody that old Hippo Campus fans will recognize off past EPs “Bashful Creatures” and “South.” The cheerier lyrics of these songs envision nights spent with friends and experiences of young love.
Hippo Campus avoided the fatal flaw by having a relatable sound without sounding like an exact copycat of their past work. The group shows off their matured voices through lead singer and guitarist Jake Luppen, this time with vocals accompanied more frequently and powerfully by lead guitarist Nathan Stocker and drummer Whistler Allen. Bassist Zach Sutton’s sharp skills set up each beat expertly, creating vibes that even people as uncoordinated as myself can dance to. With a stronger presence of background instrumentals and 80s-sounding synth, the laidback, smooth sounds of “Poems” led a friend to text me “WHAT EVEN IS THIS INSTRUMENTATION IN THE BACK THERE? ARE WE ON ‘STRANGER THINGS’?” as she compared Hippo Campus’ song to the theme music of the Netflix hit.
In addition to the increasingly mastered instrumental skills, Hippo Campus shows off their development through the meanings and lyrics of the songs themselves. Landmark features intricate, heavy themes woven throughout the album. The ninth track of the album “Monsoon” is the head turner of the album—the moment the upbeat melody fades, replaced with a slow, somber tone that opens with heavy piano chords. The song describes Stocker’s grieving process following the 2009 death of his older sister, who died at age 18 in a car accident. The haunting lyrics, “Unlike a sky copious with death / Precipitation of heart and head / Should wash the rest of her youth away / And carry on with it as she may,” detail Stocker’s angle of celebrating his sister’s life rather than focusing on her death. “It should’ve been me” is repeated throughout the song, a form of guilt Stocker didn’t feel, and in return felt more fault over.
Landmark is produced by BJ Burton, who most recently worked on Bon Iver’s latest album 22, A Million. Burton’s mark is evident throughout Hippo Campus’ album, including in “Monsoon,” which features muted, almost echoed background vocals comparable to the style of Justin Vernon’s “00000 Million.” A similar vocal technique is used to distort Luppen’s lead vocals in “Epitaph,” a slower, moodier song that looks back on a relationship.
The juxtaposition between the moods of the songs could flow as awfully as a Now That’s What I Call Music! playlist, but it actually transitions with complete smoothness thanks to songs like the first track, “Sun Veins,” and second-to-last, “Interlude.” The first echoes Burton’s eclectic style, featuring limited vocals and a collection of instrumental sounds coupled with a musical instrument digital interface that syncs up multiple devices at once. The brief 1:19 song drifts seamlessly into one of the singles, “Way it Goes,” as if it’s all one song. The first single of the album, “Boyish,” also melts into “Interlude” most notably by its heavy drum beats and jazzy saxophone.
With a U.S. tour that already started and a European tour scheduled for the fall, Hippo Campus’ fan base is only growing as they transition from EP to LP. The band has a scheduled show in Madison on April 8 at the Majestic Theatre, which marks its fourth show in Madison since fall 2015. As Hippo Campus continues to evolve, it’s clear the band won’t lose its originality as Landmark drops.