ven if the concept-album happy Tim Kasher sometimes hides under levels of self-awareness or metaphor, all of the songs that he has penned, ultimately, are about his relationships with women or, in The Ugly Organ’s case, himself. Happy Hollow sees him finally stepping back and looking at the world around him and, surprise surprise, he doesn’t like what he sees. Religious hypocrisy and intolerance are the chief subjects that attract his fury and they come with a large dollop of small-town dissatisfaction—told via the residents of the sleepy, God-fearing town of the title.
This new perspective allows for quite a transformation: Happy Hollow has no songs roiling in self-doubt, there’s a distinct lack of self-pity, and the new lyrical focus is matched by music that is more accessible (and enjoyable) than ever before. Hook-filled songs radiate an immediate joy and a brash confidence: the horns drafted in to replace departed cellist Gretta Cohn are a perfect fit, expanding on otherwise bare-bones pummeling with great success. The punk-funk riffing of “So-So Gigolo” is, quite simply, dumb fun. But Happy Hollow isn’t entirely an easy listen—it can still be bracing at times, with the “HA HUH HUH!” scream of “Big Bang” and battering drumming of “The Sunks.” “Opening The Hymnal,” for example, is swamped in distortion only to eventually emerge, blinking, as “Babies.” But a new clarity and directness shines through Happy Hollow, and no passage ever seems willfully difficult.
Reliably smart lyrics sound better than ever in these surroundings, and Kasher’s mean streak is given full rein. He tells the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy to “wake up, it’s time for work!” on excellent single “Dorothy at Forty.” And God is taken on and dismissed in style in “Retreat!”, told how much better things have been since he’s gone on holiday and asked, really, wouldn’t everyone be better off if he didn’t return?
The brutal wit is most effective of all on Happy Hollow’s finest song, “At Conception.” Abortion clinic-bothering Father Cole (who “holds the record for turning twelve girls around”) consoles Jeannie rather too extensively about her boyfriend being sent to war, before discovering that she’s pregnant and has conceived well after his departure. The tone switches from snarky to deadly serious in a gut-wrenching flash as Cole reacts with denial and the girl turns on him: “I’m hardly the Virgin Mary! And you’re no carpenter, so who will build my home?” The delight that Kasher then takes in delivering the sinister conclusion that “what happens in confession stays in the confessional” turns into some kind of macabre celebration. It’s not all one-dimensional church bashing, though. “Bad Sects” paints an eminently sympathetic portrait of a priest tortured by the potential consequences of a gay relationship.
There’s an attention to detail and storytelling nous built up by those previous concept albums that makes further listening and exploration of Happy Hollow that much more rewarding. Themes repeat throughout, but are always looked at from slightly different angles. The recurring biblical ideas are summed up neatly in the record’s one slightly meta moment, as epilogue “Hymns for the Heathen” lists the themes of each preceding song before coming to a resigned close on the faults of their town.
The only slight complaint is the obviousness of the targets that Happy Hollow takes aim at; decrying the church in 2006 doesn’t feel at all brave or shocking. Perhaps in the current political climate it’s still all too relevant. Either way, these songs and stories are more than strong enough to sell themselves regardless.