Monday, June 5, 2017

album review: 'gone now' by bleachers

I distinctly remember not expecting to love Bleachers' debut album Strange Desire as much as I did in 2014. Hell, I remember watching and reading the other reviews, which gave it some token appreciation for 'I Wanna Get Better' and then proceeded to tear into it.

And here's the thing: I completely understand where the majority of those criticisms came from. Is it a shameless 80s pastiche with a frontman who doesn't have the range and presence he thinks he has, relentlessly overwritten with an earnestness that pushes it between aggressively corny and embarrassing? Yeah, absolutely - and yet to some extent the overwritten earnestness, when paired with Jack Antonoff's uncanny knack for huge hooks and a deceptively potent album concept lurking beneath the surface, it lead to a record that hit me like a tidal wave and I still return to fairly regularly, even moreso since I got it on vinyl. And since then, he's popped up all over the place as a behind-the-scenes songwriter for Sara Bareilles, Lorde, the best song Rachel Platten has ever made, and a little someone called Taylor Swift. Yeah, you want to know the reason so many of you idolize 1989 as a pop record beyond the singles, most of the thanks you can direct here.

So you can bet I was looking forward to this - I hadn't listened to any of the lead-off singles, I was excited to go in cold and just take it all in, especially considering he brought on board both Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen to back him up. So what did we get for Gone Now?

Okay, this isn't going to precisely be easy, because I can't tell you how much I wanted to love this record going into it, because Jack Antonoff's earnestness and desire to swing big for the fences lets me forgive a lot about how scattershot his approach can be. But I have a line, and Gone Now crosses it and keeps on going, not in the least because while thematically it retraces similar but lesser ground as Strange Desire, instrumentally it's nowhere close to as potent. And as I said when I covered Halsey a few days ago, it reflects an artist who is misunderstanding his strengths as a performer in order to plow into territory that just doesn't flatter his abilities - and no, reflexive self-justification doesn't cut it for me.

So to explain all of this, let me pose a question that tended to get missed three years ago: what was at the core of Strange Desire, and when it did work, why? Well, the main thematic conceit was confronting an inexplicable old flame from the past who spurs a crisis of conscience as you're sucked back to those nostalgic days, and despite it being a reminder that you still have things to process in your current life, part of that processing is realizing you have to let this woman go. Gone Now, if anything, is deepening this theme but recontextualizing it as well - since Jack Antonoff has been in a long-term relationship for some time now, he's acknowledging that his partner in her own particular way is forcing him to confront the roots of his demons simply by her presence, and it's forcing him to determine where his focus lies between old bedrooms with grief lurking in the corner, or an uncertain deeper commitment that lies ahead. And since it's a Jack Antonoff record he's pulling on broad strokes of garish small-town Americana with the horns and the mid-80s synthpop worship and the invocations of Mickey Mantle to heighten that emotion of breaking free of that town where everyone knows your name and trace a new path to settle down and start that idealized family, wherever it might be. And ultimately it links into a sense that in order to find the purity of that expression you have to travel with that gut feeling and throw all of his second-guessing to the four winds and just go...

And I really wish that considering this narrative is very likely autobiographical that said partner in this case is Lena Dunham. Now look, I normally try to avoid bringing up artists' personal lives in reviews, given as it can reflect a lack of professionalism, but this is relevant because a.) Lena Dunham has been Antonoff's partner for years now, b.) has a highly distinctive artistic style of her own in film and TV thanks to her long-running show Girls, which also tends to be a lot more autobiographical than Dunham would like to admit, and c.) she actually appears in a vocal snippet on the song 'Goodbye'. She's not the only one - Carly Rae Jepsen shows up on briefly on 'Hate That You Know Me' and is fine, and Lorde only serves to remind me that the pairing of Jack Antonoff as producer for her is inspired for Melodrama - but it's the most relevant because while Lena does show the same sort of devil-may-care charge forward in her art, it has come at the increasing loss of self-awareness and a lack of consideration of the ideas that could underscore her art. Sure, there's something to be said for shooting big in transgression, but the mark of maturity for an artist comes in the instinct and poise to step back and think, or see the bigger picture, which became an increasingly frustrating issue on Girls and any time Lena Dunham tried to make a political statement last year. Sure, it might not be as 'raw', but truly great art can balance raw intensity with intellectual muscle or at least poise outside of a limited worldview, which is where Dunham has struggled, and where she might be rubbing off on Antonoff in a bad way. For one, as much as she might feel a similar desire to be real for him on 'Goodbye', her words feel like deflection and talking around issues rather than confronting them, especially when it's clear Antonoff is at least trying to charge forward and deal with real loss in his past. And yet nowhere is that lack of restraint and self-awareness coming through most is in his vocals: as I said three years ago, Antonoff is easily at his most compelling when he's sticking in his mid-to-lower register with firm overdubs, reminiscent of Matt Berninger of The National, and here he careens across raw binaural pickups with production choices ranging from those overdubs and harmonies to blocky autotune, wild screeches, especially on 'Goodmorning', and a painful falsetto that cuts across the bridge of 'Everybody Lost Somebody' and especially the redundant closer 'Foreign Girls', where you can tell there's still a desire for some form of wistful escape from settling down - and really, I can't blame him for that.

And yet for as much as the thematic arc is frustrating, what becomes even moreso is the production and instrumentation... and again, this is where I get the impression that Antonoff wasn't paying attention to his strengths, namely a strong focus on central melody and the explosive, 80s-inspired hooks that made Strange Desire - even if the album was messy, you could always count on him to swing back for the huge melodic hook, anchored in massive synths and supported by swells of smoldering guitar. And sure, there were choppy vocal samples that peppered the record to intensify the flurry of confused emotion, but they were never a central focus. And yet right from the very first track 'Dream Of Mickey Mantle' you get the foundation of something with the blur of runny guitars beneath the drum machine breakbeats and a pretty great crescendo against the hook - but the actual song structure beneath it feels compromised. And it gets worse on 'Goodmorning', and also where the real problem of this record comes through: a focus on repeated melodic motifs and fragments rather than fully-fleshed out songs with hooks and unique identity. Oh, you get a few songs that feel a little more developed - 'Hate That You Know Me So Well' has the spiky new wave flavor that frankly Marianas Trench handled more consistently two years ago, 'All My Heroes' that's even more wiry and even sharper - shame it focuses more on an extended outro than its phenomenal hook - the more gentle arranged but buzzy swell of 'Nothing Is U', and of course 'Don't Take The Money' which probably has the most stable hook courtesy of the huge overdubbed vocals playing off the big drums, synth, and keening guitars. And speaking of keening, can somebody tell Nico Segal that painfully thin trumpet filter has gotten old, because it pops up a fair few times across this record - it's tolerable on 'Everybody Lost Somebody', but that's more because of a great pre-chorus and hook that's then compromised by the shredded falsetto on the bridge. Hell, 'Let's Get Married' is probably a song that's closest to tones and swell to match Strange Desire, and yet even then its reckless desperation gives me less a rush of exuberance and more a sinking feeling in my gut this potential marriage is a bad idea.

But note that when I'm talking about hooks and melody, more often than not that main melody isn't anchored in a striking synth line or a huge guitar presence - or indeed, much guitar at all, which blows my mind considering Jack Antonoff got started as a guitarist! Think about that: he's taking his primary instrument, contorting his voice through mixes and a thematic construct that when he's not second-guessing seems to be playing to the wrong artistic impulses... and yet throughout all of this, I can't say this is a bad record. Because the hooks are there, and the writing does have some weight at its best moments, and this sort of sheer, go-for-broke earnestness does resonate for me - but man, this should be so much better than it is. As such, I'm giving this a light 7/10 and a tentative recommendation, but a stronger recommendation for Strange Desire if you haven't heard it - overall a more cohesive, streamlined, and potent record. But hey, Antonoff is the executive producer behind Lorde's upcoming record Melodrama, so we haven't seen the last of him just yet.

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