[1 August 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
If fun. is just Genesis re-imagined for the era of selfies and status updates—and before you scoff too loud, take some time to actually think about it—then Jack Antonoff is the Peter Gabriel of Tumblr and Twitter. “Carry On”, “Some Nights” and “We Are Young” were global pop-rock smashes, not unlike an “Invisible Touch” or a “We Can’t Dance” or a “Mama”. Sure, the English prog-to-pop mainstays didn’t achieve worldwide domination until after its eccentric, sledgehammer-wielding leader left its ranks for good, but as far as break-away weird-by-pop-standards solo projects go, Antonoff’s Bleachers is far more Peter Gabriel 1 than it is Face Value.
And with all due respect to Phil Collins, that’s a good thing. Strange Desire, the debut set from the fun. guitarist’s side, solo project, is a surprisingly weird retro trip through synthesized pop that dates all the way back to the days of Tears for Fears and Duran Duran and the Cure and Men at Work and even the Smiths. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was expected from Antonoff in the first place, but Some Nights Part Two, this is not. Instead, the guy goes into full-on detachment mode—even going as far as refusing to use his own name on the marquee—creating an indie-pop heaven made for those who adore electronics as much as they do ellipsis. It’s an update on danceable sadness, trading in bad hair for bad cellphone service.
All of this is led by the guitarist’s monotone voice, a low-register sing/speak mishmash that doesn’t sound like it might come from a guy who could be Fred Armisen’s doppelganger, all the while wearing sleeveless shirts and unflattering glasses. Still, the tones are distinctive and the passion is there, despite how subdued they tend to feel at times. Single “I Wanna Get Better” is a summer anthem for those who refuse to acknowledge great pop songs as such. The stuttering keys and super-sized synths make it feel equally urgent and modern and once that sing-along hook begins to take hold, it solidifies the thing’s status as addicting. More impressive is the quick step-up bridge that feels like it’s ripped off from about 3,019 radio hits best heard between the years 1991 and 2002, even if it’s not. As far as 2014 pop songs go, you can’t get much ... well ... better.
In fact, that’s the secret weapon behind Bleachers: its knack for infectious choruses. “You’re Still a Mystery” has the kind of refrain that you hum after waking from a long night’s sleep, wondering why or how a song could have even been stuck in your head in the first place. Be it the Whoa-o-oh-oh’s or Antonoff’s decision to raise the final word in the song’s title as he repeats it, the track’s ability to subliminally take over a mind is impressive. Mix in a kicked-up tempo and a steady electro-bassline and what you have is what the Killers should have sounded like when they tried to be Bruce Springsteen.
Speaking of the Boss, “Rollercoaster”, perhaps the record’s best moment, was as born to run as anything the New Jersey icon ever wrote this side of a mid-tempo. Pushing forward with the hunger of a debut album, it highlights a gigantic hook, complete with oh-ohs and overlapping vocals (and not to mention some exquisitely placed electronic snare snaps). Truth be told, it was made to be played in the type of outdoor sheds Antonoff’s other band toured last summer. There’s no way the clubs he booked this fall will be able to contain such overwhelming electricity with any amount of clarity.
Only when that vibrance takes a back seat does Strange Desire really trip up. “Wake Me” and “Take Me Away” are noble disappointments, their 1986 radio-grooves falling just a tad too stale for comfort. The former, while plaintive and interestingly cute, could benefit from more of its catchy guitar riff that echoes the track into its body. By the time the singer gets to his payoff line, “I can’t believe I captured your heart,” it’s your head that’s looking for ways to escape. The latter, meanwhile, kind of sounds like it wants to be on Yeezus. Fueled by little more than the steady beat of a kick drum, the over-production weighs its mood down (which is quite the feat on such an overly, overly-produced album). At two-and-a-half minutes, it’s not a deal-breaker; it’s just a little confusing.
Other minor issues creep their way in and out of the set. Yoko Ono drops by for “I’m Ready to Move On” and it only really works on a “Wow, that’s Yoko Ono on the guy from fun.‘s album” type of way. That said, any attachment to any Beatle should be lauded for effort, if nothing else. And “Shadow” is a lo-fi funk jam that is Exhibit A for how much the guitar player loves to hammer on those rhythmic riffs of his (read: “Some Nights”). Weirdly, it comes off sounding more like LCD Soundsystem than it does, say, Prince, but all things considered, that’s not such a terrible thing. This dude’s girlfriend does write an HBO series aimed at out-hipstering hipsters, remember.
Actually, the age-old H-word conundrum is worthy of examination when considering Bleachers’ Strange Desire as a standalone piece of art. Why? Because at the end of the day, everything here feels as though it’s ready-made for the type of crowd who turned against fun. once “We Are Young” began to make waves. It would be easy, then, to call this an album created with the sole purpose of landing a mega pop band’s guitar player some cool-kid cred, but that wouldn’t be fair to either the work or Jack Antonoff himself. Honestly. These songs are better than that.
Besides, hipster or no hipster, Strange Desire most certainly proves at least one thing: Nate Ruess isn’t the only guy in fun. who can write a hell of a pop song. And really, that’s all that should ever matter to anyone who chooses to give Bleachers the time of day in the first place. The music. Nothing more. Nothing less. So, yeah. These 11 songs might be more of a trip to Solsbury Hill than they are an indication of whatever might be coming in the air tonight. Such observation pales in comparison, however, to the mere fact that once the final rings of Strange Desire fade into silence, it’s more than likely that all you’ll want to do is turn it on again.