With their Parma Violet sweetness and sun-dappled indie grooves, Minnesotan five-piece Hippo Campus tapped into a wealth of success that has only mounted since the release of their debut album Landmarks in 2017. Their sky-blue style, characterised by optimistic synth and the thrill of tropical guitarwork, has earned them a place in the same sonic milieu as the likes of Rex Orange County and COIN.
With not two hands to take all they can – but ten between them – Hippo Campus have an unrelenting grip on their success with the swift succession of their sophomore album, Bambi. It’s a calculated risk: Hippo Campus have taken bold strides down a road less-travelled. Bid farewell to your familiarity.
Bambi is an apt name for an album with its centripetal force being awareness of mental health, stemming from a culture which still prefers to keep tight-lipped about struggles we know to be universal. “I’ve always considered the responsibility of art to be representing your specific experience,” says Zach Sutton. “We’re saying, ‘This is what I’m doing now, this what I’m living like.’ It’s about sharing what you’re going through, so maybe someone else will feel less lonely.” Hippo Campus have always written lyrics equally weighted in emotion and intellect; the theme of Bambi is another to add to their thoughtful, variegated experience.
The musical focus of Bambi is far more ambient than the established Hippo Campus sound. ‘Mistakes’, the album’s opener, seeps into distant sounds of ordinary life: a dog barking; a tree swaying, weighted by trailing synth and choral vocals. It sets a precedent for an album that seems more like a soundtrack; more expansive and encompassing, rather than just a collection of discrete songs.
‘Mistakes’ calls brass sections into play, which with lunar twinkles, makes Bambi feel otherworldly. Trumpets are instruments Hippo Campus aren’t afraid to dabble with: the track ‘Bambi’ has brass woven into its tapestry that gives the band newfound soul, and with that, a newfound attitude.
There is something very restless about Bambi. Hippo Campus seem to be like children playing with new finger paints, smattered with a confusion of colour. ‘Doubt’ has fragmented, scatterbrain synth that is brash to the ear. It takes a while for you to find your feet. Nevertheless, it is a risk executed perfectly. This tug-of-war between the infectious indie-pop grooves we’re used to and this new, experimental sound creates euphony, rather than divide.
One of the most notable tracks on the album is ‘Bubbles’. Its meandering, looped instrumental is like one of the most leisurely song to listen to; a sunny walk in the park. But the moment you feel like you’re in step with ‘Bubbles’, Hippo Campus rip it open, tear out the stuffing and turn it inside out: an assault of auditory brutalism begins; ear-shatteringly loud and – far more than distorted – mutilated. A choice that hits you in the solar plexus, this seems like an entirely different band to the melodic Hippo Campus of ‘Landmarks’.
There is a deliberate confusion to Bambi that is impossible to recover from: “The only thing I’m sure about with this album is how unsure it is,” Nathan Stocker says. “I want people to feel as confused as we are about everything, because confusion can be an interesting thing. When you don’t totally understand what’s going on, you never stop thinking and questioning and trying to figure things out for yourself. I think a lot of good can come from that.”
Nevertheless, there are a couple of songs that pay homage to their former sound. The humble creek of guitar strings, coupled with a tight indie-rock instrumental and sparkling synth makes ‘Why Even Try’ one of the most instrumentally strong tracks on the album. The balance struck between the sincerity of the vocals and this cinematic instrumentation makes ‘Why Even Try’ quite beautiful. ‘Golden’ is dyed with the infectious, uplifting melodies of ‘Landmarks’; it’s honey sweet as it soars, anchored by the Julian Casablancas-style distorted vocals.
The risk Hippo Campus have taken is not the interesting thing about Bambi: the interesting thing is that it’s a risk that has been executed so brilliantly that it is subverted, and hardly feels like a risk at all. They strike the balance well between their formative style and the more experimental style of Bambi. Every song is like a small pocket of delight. Like every great band, they grow with their sound – and in turn, the audience grows with them.
Check out Bambi here and Hippo Campus are off on tour in the UK soon so grab tickets here.