I mean it. And I’m not just saying this because he’s my favorite artist. There’s proof. His lyrics, the composition and musicality of his songs, his instagram photos, all point toward the genius lurking just below mainstream pop radio stations’ continuous playlists. I’ve been listening to Van Hunt’s music since 2005, when my best friend exposed me to What Can I Say (For Millicent), from his debut album Van Hunt, as a suggestion for our senior song. We didn’t end up doing it, but I’ve been hooked ever since. In my freshman year of college I was obsessed. Luckily for me, On The Jungle Floor came out and I was able to fully immerse myself in the hysteria that is Van Hunt’s music.
With the exception of Use In Case of Emergency and Popular, I’ve bought every album (UICOE is still on my list of purchases to make and Popular required quite a bit of interwebz stealthiness to download, since I couldn’t find it for purchase anywhere). Not one song has disappointed me. So there’s my bias. I already loved Van before the new album came out, so to me it’s a part of a continuum, not a surprising new sound like some reviewers say. That being said, What Were You Hoping For is everything a Van Hunt album can and should be, plus a little more. It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a piece of music, so excuse me if some terminology is ill-used or misplaced but hopefully the overall effect is persuasive and informative enough. I’m going to review each song, which will make this a bit of a long piece, but for the sake of brevity I’ll give you a quick summary: You need to own this album.
North Hollywood – “Hollywood is just as she always was - A complicated love child”
Opening with the pounding of a solid, rhythmic kickdrum and a slick guitar strum, North Hollywood is the perfect song to start off this album. Have you ever gotten through an album and thought, “Man, number 5 really should have been the first track”? Well that won’t happen here. The combinations of pure Rock & Roll, with the lyrical personification of North Hollywood provide the perfect setup song for this album.
Lyrics like “There sits an oasis of concentrated goodness/ Where I disappear and the next sound your hear/ Is a melody over a vicious beat” and “Politics of the kids in the low-level bounce houses/ Mark the world as just a skate park” are incredible, foreshadowing an aspect of the album where Van Hunt shines brightest: social commentary through rose-colored glasses.
Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane – “Those of us short on loot are short on friends and lovers too.”
To me, this song is an incredibly complex story, lyrically, with really one simple point: Money problems suck. Or maybe it’s more like: Money problems suck but it could be worse; we could be religious. I’m still not sure to be honest. Pot-shots at modern Christianity seem to be a running gag throughout Van Hunt’s music, some of which, as a Christian, may be somewhat deserved.
The thing I love about this song is the urgency, not just with the quick tempo and but more with the seemingly desperate storyline. I mean, “I went to my priest to beg the church for relief/ He said they had bigger problems to address than me” is really just heart breaking isn’t it? And the priest’s response of “…we’re coming to save you” (meaning redemption from sin) when what the narrator really seems to need is a way to provide for his family, really drives the point home. Sometimes people know what they need better than we do. I don’t like to read too much into things, but that’s what I got from it.
Designer Jeans – “Why can’t we be who we are / Without selling it on a billboard?”
Excellent question Van, and well worded too. As a marketer this song makes me cringe. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it and agree, but the fact that Van Hunt is right is precisely what makes me uneasy. Look at these lyrics: “Message me on the bathroom wall/ Original network social/ People with nothing on their minds/ Need only press a button to share online / Religion, atheism/ Mass production and consumption of opinions.” How am I supposed to make a living now? I work in social media! Haha
All kidding aside, this song’s pulse is magnetic. It just drives into you, musically and lyrically. Clear and to the point, Designer Jeans seems to me to be the more mature sister song to Turn My TV On from Popular. In the line of thinking that materialism and stupidity go hand in hand, this song stands as a solid answer to the question “what is wrong with America today?”
I can only imagine the figure that inspired Van to pen this masterpiece. I mean, a twangy ode to the personified booty? Only Van Hunt would think of that ladies and gentlemen. And if someone else did think of it, they certainly couldn’t have executed the idea so poetically. The twang of the bluesy guitar in this piece fits perfectly with the down low thumping of the bass, which is a beautiful line I find myself humming often.
There’s such a wide array of instrumentation in this song, and the breakdown after the poem is one of my favorite parts. Pair that with lyrics like “Lord why’d you give that girl an aquarium?/ Now she’s easy to see and hard to touch,” and you have the perfect expression of compulsion and longing.
Falls (Violet) – “Give’em what they want and all they want is more.”
I may be reading into things a bit here but from seeing Van in concert, I suspect that this songs deals with a lot of his feelings toward the music industry and our “chew’em up and spit’em out” mentality toward celebrities in this country. One of my initial favorites upon first hearing this album, Falls (Violet) has an almost Hawaiian feel musically, but a message that’s anything but blissful. It is that kind of dissonance that makes this such a great song. There’s real, palpable pain being expressed here, but the melody is so easy to listen to and sounds like it should be coming from an old radio on the beach.
This song was all that I could think about during the weeks following the death of Whitney Houston. “You asked me to come over and bring you back to life / While I’m dying on the inside.”
And that creepy, spiraling jaunt is beautiful musical interpretation of how a star can spiral into despair as their fame fades. This song is utterly, heartbreakingly, beautiful.
Moving Targets – “You are bound to give me all you have to give.”
I love to picture this song from the perspective of Cupid. He’s been doing this for a while, and has learned quite a few things about piercing the hearts of reluctant lovers. They always seem to fight it. Why, why do they fight it? “Wounded but not through yet/Still determined not to lose it/Such a sorry thing to prove but it won’t save you from the truth.” Aim. Ready. Fire!
This song is gorgeous, point blank. The piano line is so light and lovely, a perfect contrast for the heavy wave of the bass line. It just washes over you, really it does. Listen to this with some premier speakers and you’ll get exactly what I’m talking about.
Eyes Like Pearls – “After I promised her my best/She turned to our guests and blinded them with her happiness.”
Such a wonderful scene, the perfect picture of a love fulfilled resulting in marriage and a happily ever after. “It was what a man does dream of.” That’s right ladies, we think about that fateful day too, but this song is a bit more in line with what a man conjures up his wedding day to be like. No frills, no fuss, just a happy wife and an eventful drive off into the sunset. Nothing could be closer to the truth.
A Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend – “The youth carry a sense of drifting, serene/ Roaring like the Twenties.”
There is so much life and fun in this song, it’s really contagious. The lyrics reference things time may effect to tell the story of the rejuvenating powers of a new girlfriend. “Love was cheaper than money, happiness came at the cost of being with you.” Yea, it was that bad guys. But luckily she brings him to his feet and thus this exuberant melody we’ve been gifted. The driving drums on this could only be Ruth Price, a genius in her own right behind a set of Pearls. Guitars are key to making this the rock jewel it is but the real star of this are the synths and keyboard, played by Peter Dyer. I bet they had so much fun playing this one. Any garage band kids should learn this song; it’s perfect for jamming out.
What Were You Hoping For – “It’s the end of white flight, can’t afford to keep moving north. Money tight.”
Catchy, upbeat and surprisingly friendly this song brings Van’s social commentary in full view and does it while being completely approachable. The simple message of this song is that everything messed up in the world happens to bring us together. What more could you want? Obviously set in current times and spliced with clippings from (I’m guessing) the news, this song is a recession’s anthem. Once again a jaunty bass line draws us in and a hot guitar riff keeps us in, but the vocals on this song really shine and make the lyrics that much more interesting.
Cross Dresser – “People aren’t as cool as the things they leave behind.”
Sometimes I think Van’s guitar playing is a little 80s (not too much, but kinda) and this is one of those songs. Which, flamboyant as the 80s were, is kind of fitting. The story as I can tell is this: Guy loves girl. Girl leaves guy. Guy is heartbroken. Girl leaves clothes behind. Guy tries girl’s clothes on and (for some reason) sparks a cross dressing revolution. People get inspired and ask a lot of questions.
The lyrics have so much depth though. “Wanted to disguise the hurt and wound up ending gender. But I got to know her better through her high heels and her skirts.” Love does drive people to do some strange things, but what’s so funny to me is the movement his cross dressing sparks is unintentional.
It’s a Mysterious Hustle – “It’s a race to the bottom of the pile. Where all the junkies collide and bend.”
This song’s message is great because it’s basically a guide to how to play the game of life when you aren’t dealt the greatest of hands. The thing that’s most important in life is taking control of your own life and making every moment count. “See the old man? He makes no such attempts. He creeps slowly chasing the golden dim of nights behind him.” Lyrics like this and the simple instrumentation (thick guitar chords, simple drums and a light, repetitive piano) make this song an easy favorite.
The spoken part at the end is one of my favorites though: “If you follow the beaten path, it will keep you tied to the pain. You live and die with the anguish of never giving it back. These are the rules and they are always changing. As hard as this life is, it could be just the playoffs. Some people put their lives in the hands of God. Bet on yourself, just in case your life is in the hands of the odds.” Personally I disagree and think it’s a much better bet to put your life in God’s hands but what I like about this part is the way he expresses his thoughts so clearly and concisely. As a writer I greatly admire that kind of potent skill.
Van’s just amazing and this album is a perfect example of why. What were we hoping for? This, Van. This and only this.