Hop Along’s last album, Painted Shut, featured a song called ‘Powerful Man’, with Frances Quinlan telling the story of seeing a child being abused by their father, and not stepping in to say or do anything about it because of his imposing presence and her relative youth. This story is just a microcosm of what has become the main driving force behind the Philadelphia band’s third album Bark Your Head Off, Dog. It’s an exploration of newfound understanding of power – within oneself and from those who wield it.

“I’m angry that I believed in this false idea for so long, that a man would come along and show me what I was worth,” Quinlan states in the press release for Bark Your Head Off, Dog. But, you wouldn’t necessarily feel that anger in the sonics of the album; where Painted Shut was chock full of big and booming guitar riffs, Bark Your Head Off, Dog is measured and melodic, never reaching the volume of the predecessor. Hop Along have instead opted for a more layered approach to their songs here, which can often mislead in their intention just as often as they impress.

Quinlan’s lyrics are never explicitly about a topic either, rather they tell stories and leave you to figure out the moral. Where once pounding guitar riffs would tell you where the anger or passion lay in the song, this time the songs are bedded on violins, upon which Quinlan’s rasping voice rises, crests and falls, rarely breaking the meter, leaving the listener to refer to the lyric sheet to pick up on the messages being relayed. This means songs like ‘Somewhere A Judge’, ‘How You Got Your Limp’ and ‘What The Writer Meant’ leave strangely little impression on the first few go rounds; largely because the choruses don’t announce themselves as they once did. Sometimes, as on ‘Not Abel’ and ‘The Fox In Motion’, the lyrics need parsing to really try to figure out what Quinlan is getting at, but Hop Along have found new dynamics to make the songs flow and attract nonetheless. ‘Not Abel’ is a dense biblical tale, but just the way Quinlan’s voice slides perfectly up and down the bountiful strings makes it a winner. ‘The Fox In Motion’ is undeniably catchy in its swift and enchanting melody, even if the point being made is not obvious.

‘Somewhere A Judge’ has a nice and playful chorus with plenty of images; the sun crawling across the lawn, pulling on someone’s voice through a phone line, but it’s a bit overstuffed with ideas to really catch your attention, and the song’s titular scene of a judge living it up on a beach is lost in the mess of ideas. ‘How You Got Your Limp’ tells the story of a professor getting drunk and publicly humiliating a young student, but this is not obvious from the harp-inflected acoustic way it plays out; it sounds more sweet than disturbing.

However, when it does work on Bark Your Head Off, Dog, it shows that Hop Along are one of the most vital bands currently working. Opener ‘How Simple’ is the most pop-punk they get here, and lyrically touches on personal appearance, aging and ultimately a break up, wrought through sly observations and subtle condemnations. ‘One That Suits Me’ is most directly linked to the themes of male power, encompassing several authority figures from scientist to Captain to Padre (all male), and slamming home the message with the most focused chorus on the album: “In an open field/ man is guilty always.”

Bark Your Head Off, Dog finishes with its best two tracks, ‘Look Of Love’ and ‘Prior Things’. This might be because the political angle is backgrounded in favour of tales of love and childhood. In both songs we find ourselves inside Quinlan’s head as she considers the affection that she wants to show, but is too afraid. ‘Look Of Love’ also discusses the death of a dog that lived down the street from her as a child, but once again this is the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t realise until you sat down with the lyric sheet. For the casual listener, ‘Look Of Love’ comes across as a straightforward love song, especially because of its grand chorus, where you can tangibly feel Quinlan’s conflict as she sings “I can’t get close enough/ to see you’re overgrown with the look of love,” the band backing off a little before bringing their weight back down on that titular phrase, showing some of the dynamics they used so effectively on previous outings. ‘Prior Things’ is another string-laden one, but this time it perfectly suits Quinlan’s wistful tale of regret and indecision. As she stumbles through the song’s over-thinking verses and into the longing chorus, you’re truly swept up as she questions “Why don’t I try to make you mine?/ Why don’t I back you up against this moment?” Only for her to admit defeat shortly afterwards, deciding to take her “little lower road” instead. It’s an anthemic kind of forfeit though, with many out there surely connecting to this laconic self-dismissal.

Bark Your Head Off, Dog is an album showing a band striving to push themselves to bigger and broader aims. It’s an album that flatters to deceive in its use of string arrangements throughout, and may leave some long-time Hop Along fans shrugging a little on their first few times through. However, as with most densely made albums, the more time and effort you spend on it, the more you will get out of it. It might not be what we expected from Hop Along given their previous two albums, but now they’ve proven that they can make this kind of grandiose folk-inflected pop-punk, we hope to hear them swinging for the fences again next time out.