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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Album Review: The Fall of Hobo Johnson by Hobo Johnson

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

The new album from Sacramento native Hobo Johnson is an offbeat delight, blending profound sadness with breezy frivolity.

For those unfamiliar, Frank Lopes Jr took his stage name from his homeless status. Kicked out by his alcoholic father as a teenager, he slept in his car, worked (and ate all of his meals) at a pizza parlour, and slowly but surely began to write and perform music to increasing success. His jittery, discordant debut album followed, named after his car and home, 2015’s Hobo Johnson and his 94 Corolla.

This new album, The Fall of Hobo Johnson, continues and comments on the themes introduced in that album and built upon in Johnson’s second LP, The Rise of Hobo Johnson – a record first released independently in 2016 then reworked, remastered and rereleased by Reprise Records in 2017.

That major label debut proved a sleeper hit – an indie success that took its time to find its audience. Those who have followed Lopes’ career from the start should be used to this sort of thing; they have seen him go from Homeless Johnson to Hobo, then from Hobo Johnson and The Bois to Hobo Johnson and The Lovemakers, then, via a breakthrough NPR Tiny Desk concert and his viral hit single Peach Scone, to his current iteration – a spoken word jazz-pop prodigy, awkward, bouncy, potty-mouthed and restless.

Happily, a sense of building momentum and confidence is clear to hear on this album. While Rise was a respectable-enough effort, the quality of the songs generally fell off in the record’s second half. Not so here.

That album felt overly loose and a little one-note in its instrumentation, too. The sequel meanwhile develops aspects of the earlier albums’ successes and discusses their failures – affectionately and painfully, with self-referential allusions and quotes from older songs cropping up with pleasing results.

Variety is key here, both in instrumentation, tone, theme and outlook. Johnson ranges from offering a twee spoken word satire in You & The Cockroach to an existential party tune on Typical Story, unashamedly sweet balladry on Ugly Kid to existential emo chillout on Sorry, My Dear.

It’s as if De La Soul, Herbie Hancock and Beck had a baby, then abandoned him before he was ready for the world.

If there is a unifying musical element it would be the piano – an instrument Lopes confesses to playing fairly badly. It masquerades here as drums, synths and strings at times, and not everything done on the keys is as complex as it might be.

Then again, the album is so full of life that this is a sin easily forgiven. And, to help, Johnson does pick up a guitar from time to time – just listen to February 15th, a simple, short, gut-punch of a song that moves from pained whispers to frenzied growls with extraordinary sensitivity.

This said, the other main issue with the album is its tendency towards irony. The song Subaru Crosstrek XV for example, about a new car that is not a Lamborghini because Johnson is still not successful enough to afford one, is emblematic, and risks jumping the shark; at times, the whole album can feel a little bit too much like you are being sung to by an awkward college kid cracking wise.

Thankfully, given more than a cursory listen every song on the album reveals itself to be something special – Subaru Crosstrek XV included.

Indeed, humour is present on most of the tunes, but even then the jokes are often knowingly bad and hint at real pain, real fear and real loneliness.

Heartbreak and a lack of love are the key ideas, and it is hard not to hear the trauma of Frank Lopes through the Hobo Johnson veneer. The boy with no family, inherited problems with alcohol, nowhere particular to go, no stability in his career or world, and no certainty about anything at all.

Lopes is working through his anguish in his music, and while some of the songs might sound jolly, and perhaps not quite all the thinking is mature enough to pack as much punch as it could (a refrain, appearing across songs, about a love interest making Ruby Tuesdays taste like Benihana is an awkward example), you know what? The guy is 24, and figuring himself out. It makes sense that he is not a master of consistent profundity just yet.

As such, the album is a beautiful, unusual, unclassifiable record. Human and humane, seriously silly and deadly serious, it is worth at least two listens through. If you haven’t caught the bug by then, of course, you probably never will – but then again Lopes seems resigned to his outsider status.

He doesn’t even know if he wants you to like him, in fact. Or if he wants the things he thinks he should want, as explored on album closer I Want A Dog, a song that leaves us in excellent place while we wait to hear what he does next.

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