Part of the fun of listening to Hop Along is first getting swept up by the band’s unpredictable delivery and roller coaster dynamics, then tracing your way back through Frances Quinlan’s lyrics to untangle just what it was they had you singing along to. On “Powerful Man”, the second single off of their upcoming Saddle Creek debut Painted Shut, Quinlan makes hooks out of ominous lines like “He said / she’s not gonna help you” and the persistent refrain “I just thought he looked like a powerful man.” It’s a song about a failure of bystander intervention—witnessing an abusive situation and being too afraid to step in and stop it—based off of a real experience Quinlan had, which continues to haunt her ten years later. Quinlan caterwauls through the power dynamics and traumatic affects that shape an all-too-common experience—the narrator victim-blames herself for being the “only other adult around” (despite being only 18 at the time), then appealing to a school official only to get dismissed. The crashing “I just thought he looked like a powerful man” conclusion is crushing because even though those are the answers we live with, they’re not the answers we want.
Aside from occasional faint bursts of nervous percussion, the music itself is not particularly unsettling: driven by confident rock guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place in any bar rock jam, it’s an enjoyable song, contrasting the dark subject matter. Any way you look at it, “Powerful Man” is a powerful song.