Thursday, July 17, 2014

album review: 'strange desire' by bleachers

I've made it no secret that I'm a fan of the indie rock act fun., who came into sharp prominence in the mainstream thanks to a lucky Glee collaboration and three killer singles. Now I'm a fan of fun. for a number of reasons, and I'd make the argument their best songs likely came on Aim & Ignite the album before Jeff Bhasker got his hands on their mixes and amped the bombast to eleven and made the Queen parallels all the more stark. And sure, it was cheesy and utterly ridiculous, but there was a certain pop grandeur to their material that always underscored their material, an earnest sincerity that belied their killer melody lines and Nate Ruess' impressive voice.

But here's the funny thing about indie rock acts: most, if not all of the band members typically have at least one or two side projects running simultaneously, especially when they're hoping for that next mainstream crossover hit. And fun. is no exception, and while many pegged Nate Ruess as the breakout star as the frontman, I made sure to take notice when I heard about Bleachers the solo side project of Jack Antonoff, the lead guitarist of fun. and a contributing songwriter for Tegan & Sara, Christina Perri, and Sara Bareilles. And when I heard that he had managed to rope in Grimes and Yoko Ono to boost his indie cred, I figured the debut album was at least worth a few listens. Was I right?

Well, it was definitely worth it, but this review will be one of the tricky ones, because we're dealing with an album I won't say is bad, but I will say is broken on a few levels. And that's the frustrating thing and the reason this review is a day or so late because this record hits some great highs in terms of melodic composition and execution that I'd rank as some of the most potent pop music I've heard thus far this year... but at the same time, it's messy, slapdash, wears its influences a little too proudly to be ignored, and somehow doesn't really reach the emotional heights it's trying. And yet, there's enough of a narrative sketched out that does demand attention, and does enough to mean I'm actually going to defend this record. It may have taken a dozen listens, but as divided as the critical press have been on Strange Desire by Bleachers, I think I'm ultimately going to come down and - somehow - defend it.

Okay, to explain this, I need to start with the instrumentation and production - which really is a complete mess in its own right. Antonoff has mentioned in interviews that this record was composed in pieces and then assembled, and it shows, because there is a lot of tonal discordance between various chunks of this record in the odd fusion between 80s-inspired synthpop, modern, fuzz-saturated indie rock, and the cluster of electronics and classical instrumentation that fits between them, all pumped up to eleven to recreate the anthematic sounds that soundtracked John Hughes movies a dozen times over. If I was looking for a way to describe the instrumentation and sound, it'd be a threeway fusion between the maximalist synthpop of Frankmusik, the downbeat indie introspection of The National, and the 80s-obsessed teenage energy of The 1975. And if it sounds like that's a bit of a mess... well, yeah, it really is. Many of the songs feel clipped and overloaded with abrupt shifts in tone and sound, and it makes many of the tracks feel offkilter and overloaded. The sudden eruption of heaviness on 'Wild Heart', the sudden leap to a higher register on 'I Wanna Get Better', the static-filled electronic drop of 'Like A River Runs' complete with crowd noise, the sudden bursts of electronica and autotune, and the certainty that no matter what, the song will jump to a full backing chorus for the hook, it feels distressingly unstable. And there are so many moments on this record that feel messy and overstuffed that it can be hard to get swept up in some of the phenomenally strong melody lines that anchor this record.

Granted, Jack Antonoff's vocals are also part of the issue. And while he does display a lot of charisma and a pretty large vocal range stepping to the microphone, he doesn't exactly lend this album consistency, leaping from a pop rock higher voice to a lower register similar to Matt Berninger of The National. For a record dying out for a consistent element, the shifts in vocal technique are all the more jarring. It doesn't help matters when Grimes gives a mostly unimpressive vocal performance on 'Take Me Away' and Yoko Ono mostly just adds her brand of weirdness to 'I'm Ready To Move On/Wild Heart Reprise', and the contrast between her vocals and Antonoff's heavily pitch-corrected voice doesn't exactly flow well.

So at this point, you're all probably wondering how I could possibly back this record up, and the questions only get stronger when you look at the songwriting, where the poetry is solid but at first glimpse the songs don't appear to have much depth. Many of them seem much more concerned with the killer choruses or to try and replicate the emotions of those 80s teen movies without really carrying the nuance, because the songwriting falls directly into the vein of typical teenage-love driven indie pop. And I get why some have just dismissed Antonoff as just an imitator of previous styles without the underlying nuance or pathos, because when the songs are on their own, they can feel a little hollow.

But believe it or not, when you look at the record as a whole, you start noticing little things. Common lyrical elements and reprises from across the album. A looped sample hidden in the background that mentions gratitude and living in bubbles and hidden depths. The odd choice for Antonoff to vary his vocal register from song to song. And then you realize it: there's a narrative to this record. The album initially sets the stage in teenage heartbreak with 'Wild Heart' and picks up years later, as Antonoff tries to recapture that youthful passion with the same girl, a loose end in his life who he connects with to his shock only to see it fall apart for many of the same reasons. The album is less a celebration of teenage love than a deconstruction of it, showing both the heady rush of his exuberance in his higher voice and the melancholic resignation in his lower tone that this is all a really bad idea. And when it comes together in this light, it does show nuance - 'I Wanna Get Better' and 'Reckless Love' are two sides of the same coin, as the love both gives him the drive to get over his own ignored issues and ultimately a relationship that he's in for the wrong reasons. It reminds me a lot of the dramatic arc of the main relationship in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, where it's heavily hinted that Scott and Ramona aren't nearly the best fit for each other, but it's what they need right now to get over their own issues. And Antonoff actually takes the next step and shows enough self-awareness to have the relationship fail again as he realizes it wasn't about to work twice, but that he's still grateful for the experience and that second chance - something the samples symbolize him knowing all along. And you know... I get that. I understand why this record was played with the heady, over-the-top teenage sensibility that it was, because it's an arc that fits those emotions. It is a 'strange' desire to want to go back to that sort of relationship, but it's one that fits and the second-guessing of that desire is played right. And I appreciate there was no presumptions that this could work or that Antonoff was ultimately going to learn something about himself other than the knowledge he's had all along. 

So in the end... okay, look, I completely get why some people are going to fall in love with this record on first listen and why so many critics and listeners going a step deeper will dislike it - because yeah, it's messy, jerky, and even now I'm not sure the songwriting holds these tracks together on their own. But as a whole... you know, I'll say it, Strange Desire by Bleachers really clicked for me. Maybe it's the maximalist aesthetic and killer choruses, maybe it's the tight grooves or surging melody lines, maybe its the hidden narrative that feels unexplored by most who have covered this record. And I know I've been on a bit of a hot streak in really liking records, but yeah, it's been a good week, it's getting an 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, if only for the number of fantastic pop moments that really sent a shiver down my spine. Folks, I can't promise you'll love Strange Desire by Bleachers, but it's interesting enough to demand a listen anyway, so check it out.

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