Grand Jury Music · September 28th, 2018
Hippo Campus’ sophomore effort Bambi diverges from their usual guitar-driven indie-rock sound, opting instead to highlight human emotion amidst warm synths and bubbling percussive rhythms.
With the release of Bambi, Minnesota-based indie-rock band Hippo Campus focuses on the present. Leaving behind the notion that they would create another “Hippo Campus record,” the band decided that they wanted to instead approach the album as an opportunity to be heard as four individuals that happen to be under the name of Hippo Campus; making music that is more personal, vulnerable, and in the moment. Bambi collects these moments, wrapping them in warm synths and an array of bubbling rhythms, ranging from gentle pulses to frenzied glitches. The ten-track record diverges from the usual guitar-driven rock that made up most of Hippo Campus’ prior discography, but brings with it new layers of dimension both sonically and conceptually.
Before I get too far into the review, I want to first ensure readers that I will withhold from making any references to a certain baby deer. The namesake of the album (and song) is actually attributed to lead singer Jake Luppen’s aunt, whose secluded cabin served as an important space for the band to write and work through the creative process of the album. That process was aided by producer BJ Burton (of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million), who had already worked with Hippo Campus to produce their previous debut album, Landmark. The established relationship allowed the timeline of the project to be condensed into four and a half months, in contrast with Landmark’s year and a half development. The shorter timeline and Burton’s influence also led the band to make their music truly reflective of the inner dialogue and mental state of each individual during that period. These thoughts and emotions were borne heavily and unflinchingly through the subject matter of each song, and through the rises and falls of intensity in sound throughout the record.
The first two tracks of the album demonstrate this emotional expression in both a lyrical and musical sense. ‘Mistakes’ is an atmospheric, almost ethereal, opener that moves slowly with haunting choral arrangements and commanding synths. At the song’s climax, as all sound is stripped away, Luppen’s voice cuts through the silence to finish the lyric “I’m not that bad, I make mistakes / sometimes, mistakes.” The music gradually fades back in again, this time adding rich trumpet sounds to close on (at the same time introducing the new fifth member of Hippo Campus, horn player DeCarlo Jackson). ‘Anxious,’ bassist Zach Sutton’s first songwriting credit for the band, comes in next, backed by electronic mid-tempo pulses, and building to the intensity of the bridge—one of my favorite moments on the record. The vocal delivery of the bridge in particular expresses desperation, while the lyrics convey exasperation at the feeling of indefinable anxiety and worry.
The emotional exposure seen early on continues as the album progresses, covering the issue of losing control in ‘Bambi,’ and grappling with indecision and complacency in ‘Honestly.’ Each song also carries its own distinguished sound, which keeps the record as a whole from lagging at any point or blending together too much. Guitar riffs were not wholly abandoned, making notable appearance in ‘Why Even Try,’ while a strident frenzy of distorted guitar and muffled, overdubbed vocals crash through the otherwise ambient ‘Bubbles.’ A sense of cohesion still remains thematically through an introspective gaze, while the consistent presence of the synthesizer and drum machine contribute to the album’s fluidity.
Bambi showcases the members of Hippo Campus as individuals, and in doing so, brings a grounding sense of humanity to the album as a whole. Although some fans may have been hoping for the usual bright indie-rock that the band has offered in the past, stagnancy in sound can hinder growth, especially for a young band. Hippo Campus demonstrated maturity in their decision to explore their capabilities as singular artists through Bambi, while simultaneously creating a unified album that captures the wide scope of genuine human feeling.