Happiness Hours should go down as one of the great pop artifacts of 2018. It may not be suited for Top 40, but it checks all the boxes of a great pop album. Frontman Steve Ciolek has mastered the art of turning highly personalized lyrics into something absorbing and universal; like a DIY Matt Berninger, he possesses the songwriting ability to make anyone nostalgic for a specific time in their life while distinctly singing about his own. An exercise in duality, the album’s guitars are sunny and clean, except for when they go down a darker, more distorted path. Happiness Hours presents pop music in two different lights, equally as weird and ambitious as it is bright and polished, often within the same four minute song.
Experimentation, youth, and the unwanted changes that come with growing up are common themes throughout the album. References to “caps and gowns” are made on the explosive “Other People’s Pets,” a red herring of an opener that is decidedly faster and heavier than almost anything else on the record. Halfway through its 90-second runtime, the song bursts into the kind of undeniable vocal melody Ciolek is known for, acting as a proper buffer between Happiness Hours and 2015’s sleeper hit Runners in the Nerved World. Later, on the blissful single “Twins Twist,” guitarist Toby Reif lays a bed of shimmering, mid-tempo guitars to soundtrack Ciolek’s memories of gravity bongs and a “Chronic 2000 high school state of mind:”
The high keeps you on the ground
When your favorite one in town isn’t around
Kissing other people and trying not to fall in love
Dancing in the darkness, but in the daytime, it’s just a shrug
This time around, Ciolek shows restraint with the falsetto that helped earn the band so many comparisons to Band of Horses and The Shins, only really utilizing it to underline some already impeccable melodies (such as the chorus of “Mix For a Rainy Day”). Later, in that same song, Ciolek delivers a weathered bridge filled with that specialized-yet-universal longing, immediately granting the song new weight and dimension:
I wanna sit your roof again
Not talk about people or friends
Listen to ice cubes clinking, and planes
Amazed how without touching, we touch each other’s brains
The band also tips their collective hat to previously unheard influences. “I felt insane on Lover’s Lane,” starts Ciolek in “Win Affection,” a bouncy piece of jangle-pop pulled straight from The Smiths’ songbook. With a Morrissey-like cadance, he continues:
Less dog with tail between its legs
More like my guts are on display
Food out on a tray, but I can’t eat it
Doesn’t that sound defeated?
And that’s not the only nod to pop’s original depressive crooner; the danciest song here is about, well, not feeling like dancing. But the irresistible power-pop of “Don’t Feel Like Dancing” blazes more trails than one, saving room for a grin-inducing guitar solo – a trend continued on the next track, “Weed Tent.”
Fortunately for us, The Sidekicks never really stop trying new things here, from the shape-shifting tempo of “Serpent in a Sun Drought” to the hyper-literal balladry of the album’s title track. Tucked within its winning closing sequence is “Medium in the Middle,” a back half highlight that follows up on the propulsive energy hinted at in the album’s opening track. Here, Ciolek is at wit’s end, hearing “Hotline Bing’ on constant loop’ and having to explain that, no, he’s not straight-edge, he just already has a headache while turning down booze. But then, a refrain, as the band comes down from the album’s highest point and cools down with the acoustic chords of “Happiness Hours.” Jolting us back to the present, Ciolek reflects on some of his strangest thought processes, about giant white crosses and giant white cross companies, before delivering the album’s ultimate coda: “So if happiness comes in hours/Well it looks like it’s that time for me again.”
Somewhere between Weatherbox’s Flies in All Directions and The Hotelier’s Goodness lies Happiness Hours, an album so reliant on basic human experience that it seems impossible not to relate to some of these songs. As is the case with many of pop’s finest, you come for the hooks and you stay for that unexpected depth that you really ought to expect by now, and as a follow-up to Runners in the Nerved World, The Sidekicks have crafted something perhaps less immediate, but certainly bigger and better in a way only the best sequels can be. In our fairest timeline, Happiness Hours is the kind of album that will unite listeners regardless of genre classifications, as it seemingly transcends a number of them without even trying.