"Likewise" by Francis Quinlan
2020--Saddle Creek Records
For anyone who was eagerly awaiting more work from the Philadelphia-based indie rock band Hop Along, it was a pleasant surprise to learn of the release, last October, of the single “Rare Thing” by frontperson and songwriter Frances Quinlan, and the recent release, late in January, of her debut album Likewise. Throughout the album, fans will find a familiar lyrical elegance and the same incredible vocal gymnastics characteristic of Quinlan’s previous work, but it’s almost as if the constraint of being (essentially) briefly bandless has brought Quinlan to new heights of writing. She’s doubled-down on techniques we’ve seen before and broken through to bold new material.
Already a masterful storyteller used to combining the allegorical with references and anecdotes (Hop Along’s song “No Good Al Joad” comes to mind), Quinlan’s new stories “struggle for air”—words she sings herself in “Lean”—fighting as they do for a privacy of their own yet also yearning for intimacy. This conflict is at the heart of songs such as “Piltdown Man,” which opens with a contemplation of the likely fraud Charles Dawson, who may have falsely presented bone fragments as paleoanthropological evidence in 1953. “Why would he do such a thing?” Quinlan asks, singing. Then, immediately, as if a private revelation occurred, “Of course. What a stupid question.” That’s such a hilarious offhanded remark that we quickly forgive that she doesn’t bother to share her thought with us. What happens next is mysterious and beautiful: as if in explanation, or perhaps getting lost in her own private train of thought, she moves to describe a memory with the refrain, “Outside our little tent your dog must have caught something. I followed you both and then I screamed to be let in.” What prompts this anecdote is hidden from us throughout the song, yet we share these details with her and are, in fact, a crucial aspect to the story, considering she addresses the listener as “you.”
There’s an unknown intimacy between narrator and listener. Though we’re kept at arm’s length, both the listener and narrator share the details presented in the song: “Six AM so loud your mom had to kick us out. We ran the wheelbarrow around and around.” With interspersed sounds of children playing in the distance alternating with her singing, she continues, finally singing, “In the afternoon you both fell asleep still knowing more than me.” In a compelling reversal, the narrator believes the “you” listening knew more than her. This subtly poignant and nostalgic song exemplifies the refusal of Quinlan to allow her characters to be fully known or understood. Perhaps Quinlan is driven by a sense that such complete knowledge of another is impossible, but, of course, I would only have my best guess. After all, we can never fully “know” a person, or their motives (e.g., Charles Dawson), despite sharing life details (or details of a song) with them, can we?
Likewise proves a fitting name for this album. Like the Dawson reference and the anecdote that follows it, disparate images, anecdotes, and references relate to, describe, and expand upon one another in oblique and shifting ways. With Quinlan, all you get are bits and pieces. There’s a playful absurdity in her transitions from “documentarians throwing lemmings…over the edge” to “wartime juveniles shot and martyred for the crime of stealing eggs” to finally letting the listener know, “dinner, by the way, was divine,” in the song “Your Reply”. I encourage you to experience the joys of such writing yourself by listening through the whole album, out now with the record label Saddle Creek.