Since becoming a band almost a decade ago, Bad Bad Hats (Kerry Alexander, Chris Hoge and Con Davison) have been grinding as one of the most low-key, beloved acts amongst Minnesota DIY royalty. With an affinity for mid-’90s garage-rock choruses, pop-punk lyricism and glazed vocals, the trio stake their sound in stories of nostalgia and honesty fused with bouncing melodies you can’t get out of your head. Whether you discovered the group through the eternal perseverance of their early hit “Super America,” Spotify-curated playlists, or their supporting stints on tour with The Front Bottoms, Hippo Campus and The Beths, they have lived on through multiple eras of indie rock already, with their signature still intact and translated to perfection on Walkman, their first release in three years and strongest to date.
On their 2015 debut, Psychic Reader, Bad Bad Hats took the following earned from the popularity of “Super America” and used it as a foundation for the expansion of their already-sharp pop songwriting while retaining an earnest cloak of innocence. Cuts off that record like “Joseph” and “Midway” showcase Alexander’s ability to generously lend the sweetness of her voice to Hoge’s instrumentals with a certain confident, mesmerizing flair often lost on modern collaborative records. The lyricism never outshines the music.
2018’s Lightning Round didn’t pack the punch of its predecessor, falling into the trap of sameness, with less of Alexander’s quirkiness and more ramped-up melancholia, and rarely an effective blend of the two. However, there are no lingering symptoms of a sophomore slump on Walkman. The group have perfected the give-and-go of putting together a pop record that isn’t heavy-handed or overwrought with redundancy. “When I met you / Well, it felt like that ‘Heart of Gold’ / And a heart attack,” Alexander sings on the record’s title track, cleverly using nostalgic specifics to emphasize the historical sensations of a standard love song.
She translates her own organic wit into a resonant gut-wrench that teeters on the “laugh until you cry” cliché, but in the best way. On “Detroit Basketball,” Alexander weaves lines like “Gotta find a man who deserves my kissing / And doesn’t blow my money on the Detroit Pistons” and “Got a good job in a senior position / Then I threw a party and cried in the kitchen” through the song, which we learn at the end, is, ultimately, about getting over a breakup. But in Alexander’s lyrics, the narrative is not always linear. She takes repeated creative liberties in bouncing around from moment to moment, but does so in a way that’s succinct enough to reject muddiness.
At the middle of Walkman sits “Priority,” a five-minute, heartfelt song of close-proximity death, regret and the mundanity of passing time. “When I walked into the kitchen / You were already dead / Just a glowing television / And the ghost of things unsaid,” Alexander opens the track, her lyricism balanced by Hoge’s uncharacteristically hollow haunt of atmosphere lingering beneath, where he trades in his strings for keys. It’s one thing to make a pop record solid in its instrumentals, but it’s something special to pair that with sharp, witty and sometimes brutal lyricism. “I wish I could run when the going gets tough / But I never get that,” Alexander sings on “Gloria Love,” unafraid of transparency, fully leaning into her own faults atop racing guitar licks and Davison’s steady world of snares.
Alexander’s guitar parts on “Milky Way” go hard; “Awkward Phase” employs pacing similar to that of “Super America;” the “I’m not asking for forever / But I don’t want to be left out” part she sings on “Quarter Past” is a highlight of the back-half, helping to carry the record into its closer, “Year of the Crab,” which paws at the thematic heart of this record, echoed by its final line: “You’re in love with me and I feel fine.” Walkman is the best stuff Bad Bad Hats have put out since they released their It Hurts EP in 2013. Of course, there are those steadfast Bad Bad Hats tropes present on the record, like their OG strummy, caffeinated roots; but the band is also taking new risks, letting their music simmer in the quiet parts and build off its own awareness. Walkman is a jubilant half-hour punctuating a newfound maturity. Each track feels properly slept in, and, while the record is constantly grasping for the stars, Bad Bad Hats have never been more grounded.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.
Revisit Bad Bad Hats’ 2018 Daytrotter session below.