Light and darkness spar with each other throughout Lessons, the striking new album by indie-Americana quartet Ha Ha Tonka. The music is lively and joyous, as rich as anything the band has produced before. The lyrics, though, ponder the corrosive effects of time — how the passing of years tends to bleed the color right out of us, to paraphrase one of the songs on the album. Ha Ha Tonka’s reputation has grown steadily over the course of its first three records. In a just world, Lessons would be the one that makes the band a household name.
Speaking of that name, it comes from a state park in Missouri, the original stomping grounds for band members Brett Anderson, Lennon Bone, Lucas Long and Brian Roberts. Ha Ha Tonka combines the rustic twang of the Ozark region with Southern-rock riffs and a flair for inventive, melodic songwriting. Lessons broadens the band’s sonic palette a bit. Strings and keyboards provide a shimmer absent from the earlier, more stripped-down albums, but the instrumentation never gets mannered or precious — credit producers Dan Molad and the Ryantist for their subtle touch here. I hear hints of classic 1970s FM rock in these songs, along with the complex roots-rock found on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “Staring at the End of Our Lives”, for example, is a wonderful wind-in-your-hair track that wouldn’t have been out of place on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. “Arabella”, another highlight, blends plaintive, hymn-like vocals with a rousing refrain and a fuzzy guitar stomp. “Colorful Kids” displays Ha Ha Tonka’s innovative approach to structure. It opens with a bell-like mandolin, driving percussion and beautifully manicured guitars. From there it chugs along, as pleasant as can be, and then comes to a halt for no other reason than to give the band members a chance to harmonize together on a gorgeous vocal sigh.
Pushing against the warm seductiveness of the music are Ha Ha Tonka’s melancholy lyrics. “Colorful Kids” is actually a sad look back at the dissipated promise of youth: “I see me as I was, you as you were / Me as I was, you as you were / Before the color began to bleed out of us.” “Dead to the World” opens with bitterly funny lines that capture the malaise of middle adulthood: “I can make coffee / I can make small talk / Because who wants to try something new.” The very titles of the songs “Rewrite Our Lives” and “The Past Has Arms” suggest regret and the frustration inherent in trying to overcome previous mistakes. As the album unfolds, you get the sense that the music and the lyrics are telling two separate stories — one that looks ahead with optimism, and another that can’t stop looking backward. The narratives don’t stay on parallel tracks, though. They tussle with each other throughout, a showdown between light and dark.
So who wins? I guess it depends on what the listener brings to the table on any given day. There are times when I listen to the album and end up lost in reflection about fading memories and missed chances. Other times, the guitars and drums and harmonies lift me up, convince me that the road ahead is bright. Either way, Lessons makes for a fantastic journey.