Scaled back. Spacious. Soft and flirty. Hippo Campus captures a sound and story that takes the modern romance song into the future.
It’s futuristic, and not just for the band’s branch of the alternative rock genre. “Passenger” is a departure from the successful, fanciful, hipster sound Hippo Campus and their contemporaries are known for. Even with the electronic, digitally produced aesthetic and its heavy reliance on synth effects, the new single still manages to possess that retro, raw musicality the band has demonstrated in the past.
Replacing their usual jolly bass and guitar riffs with moody piano comps and synthesizer ornamentations, the song shows off the group’s large range while still sounding authentic to who they are. It’s easy for artists to come off as though they’re trying too hard to be different or to go so far that the result sounds like a cheap imitation of somebody else. But not this time. Hippo Campus has achieved a seamless transition.
And although “Passenger” has the cool, neo-vintage vibe that makes it seem like it belongs in an emotional movie montage, it’s the poetic lyricism that keeps listeners captivated the whole time.
The song got to me when right when it began, jumping off with the intriguing lyrics:
Calico, you’ll always chase a pedigree
A better half, so contrary
Why are you so jealous?
So striking and purposeful! I like to hear lyrics that sound thought-out, where you can hear the hard work that went into writing them. Hippo Campus appears to talk about a loved one who can’t find satisfaction in themselves, and so they feel jealous of the person who actually loves them. Throughout the song, the pair are each growing in separate directions and that envy, in time, drives the couple apart. Needless to say, it gets pretty real.
The most emotional lyrics of the track have to be when lead singer Jake Luppen says
Passenger, I’m clinging to the driver’s seat
But you’ve got all the fight we need
It’s arguably the song’s biggest moment. Right after a clean break, the drums start up again and the story takes off, like a real-life breaking point—the heartbreaking point of no return.
There’s something profound about referring to one’s troubled beloved as a “passenger,” always right there in the seat next to you, making it impossible to run away.
The lyrics are refreshingly self-aware as the singer goes on to say
But I fell ill like our friends
Corrupted by youth
And those who wanted more
This is the perspective that sets “Passenger” apart from other moody songs about growing apart. The lead doesn’t make it seem as though someone has held him back. He’s not spiteful, nor does he blame his partner. He recognizes his own growth and his own shortcomings giving the tune some layers.
Those layers aren’t just reflective but also introspective, helping the audience to understand more about the songwriters’ personal lives in an artful way. They characterize the song and the band. Popular music is dominated by generic, sing-a-long words that don’t get any deeper than what’s heard. But time after time, artists that showcase original thought are the ones that stick around. If Hippo Campus’s authenticity counts for anything, we’ll be hearing from them for a while.
The song ends with Luppen’s voice softly going on about how he wishes he could go back to when he and his love were “suffering intertwined.” I mean, come on! I’d call this kind of honesty delicate realism. It takes a painful, ugly truth and turns it into something harmonious, but just as biting.