by Niccolo Dante Porcello (@chromechompsky)
It is not until the fifth song that MOURN incidentally reveals how to understand Ha, Ha, He. That fifth song, “The Unexpected,” revolves around the lilting, harmonized phrase: “nobody is exempt from the unexpected.” Surrounded by a delicately wrought, but paradoxically immense wall of rock, MOURN stunningly reveal the methodology behind the infinitely listenable, enjoyable, and remarkable music that they make. Ha, Ha, He. – a phrase borrowed from William Blake’s “The Laughing Song” – uses unexpected chaos paired with a unique take on guitar-driven rock to keep nearly every moment of the album interesting.
On their first effort, 2015’s Mourn, the Catalonian quartet made 20 minutes (spread over 10 songs) of enjoyable rock that, above all, was promising of what was to come. Efforts like “Your Brain Is Made of Candy,” “Otitis,” and “Dark Issues,” are so impressive that it was easy to forgive some of the weaker tracks on the album, especially when considering that upon the album’s release, none of the members had yet graduated high school. They were true kids making music well beyond their years. Their sparse and unique guitar lines complemented the powerful voices of Carla Pérez Vas and Jazz Rodríguez Bueno, while Antonio Postius and Leia Rodríguez tastefully held down the rhythm section. It was a great first album from an incredibly young band, earning them well-deserved praise and comparisons to PJ Harvey and the Ramones.
Ha, Ha, He. blows Mourn out of the water, and marks a sensational step forward for MOURN. Ha, Ha, He. cuts away the excess from Mourn and leaves a lean, fun, and almost flawless 27 minutes. Among other things, Ha, Ha, He. showcases an unhinged level of craftsmanship; the 1:39 opener “Flee” is a full-fledged riff showcase that eschews lyrics in favor of captivating and impressive instrumental interplay. It is a bold way of opening an album, and almost comically well executed. “Flee” launches into the gorgeous single “Evil Dead,” an anthemic and pounding 2 minutes that find MOURN at their best, parlaying a discussion between every instrument into a vehicle for Vas and Bueno to shine. Hooks are mercilessly thrown around, and Postius makes a point to provide a splashy and driving backbone. Similarly, the previously released “Gertrudis Get Through This,” builds around a central jangly hook, with the shouted chorus of “Gertrudis/ get through this!” registering like a punk devotional.
Speaking to the A. V. Club about “Second Sage,” Rodríguez Bueno says that the song was written while alone and bored on summer vacation; “basically about me waiting for someone to talk to me while I am in the Fire Temple.” The Fire Temple referenced is that from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, an incredible classic, and one that, like Ha, Ha, He. is endlessly playable, full of surprises each time through. Postius’s pounding drum line on “Second Sage” is some of his best work on an album full of outstanding drumming. Bueno and Vaz throw out blistering guitar lines their frenetically find their way vocally, culminating a final blast of noise that is a perfect preface for the subsequent “Irrational Friend.” A true punk song, “Irrational Friend” speeds past in a short 1:28, packing an astonishing punch that exhibits the more unhinged side of MOURN; as the song collapses you hear the four members of MOURN laughing, in a crazed, Rita Repulsa-like way.
Three songs stand out on Ha, Ha, He. as being otherworldly, the aforementioned “The Unexpected,” the second single “Storyteller,” and the closing “Fry Me.” Each of these songs follows the loosest of patterns, opening with only guitar before slowly building to phenomenal climaxes; in each instance, the expectation for what is about to come is completely abandoned in favor of surprisingly inventive constructions. “Fry Me” builds to a breakdown that lands so deep in the pocket that it might be called post-funk, and explodes out into an exhilarating cacophony to end the album. “Fry Me” is the best song on the album, with Postius and Leia Rodríguez going absolutely wild with irresistible stutter-stop polyrhythms and Bueno and Vaz’s typically exceptional vocal and guitar work. Bueno’s line: “I’m wondering if/ you’ll ever know/ what we’re talking about / and I am fried/ I am/ fried” is somehow one of the most beautifully poetic in recent memory. On “Storyteller,” a beautifully whirling opening forms the initial architecture for the rest of band to dance around. Leia Rodríguez steals the show with her phenomenally intricate bass line.
Few things sound as good as MOURN when they’re at their best, juxtaposing primarily minor chord progressions with a sturdy foundation courtesy of a rhythm section that takes turns providing the spine of their songs. They are relentless in their willingness to make music that takes itself seriously, but only to a point. It can be danced to as easily as it can be ponderously thought over, and often both can be done at the same time. Ha, Ha, He. sounds like what it is: four kids having a ton of fun making music that is representative of the constant state of humor and tragedy that marks being in your late teens and early twenties. What differentiates MOURN from any host of other bands utilizing a similar ethos is their ability to incorporate a remarkable compositional virtuosity without becoming pretentious or overbearing. Never does Ha, Ha, He. stretch beyond its own self-defined limit and jump whatever genre shark there is; it somehow treads the line between popular and demanding, without compromise, in a way that so few albums ever have. MOURN truly are the unexpected.