Music Reviews

Passion Pit Gossamer

(Columbia) Rating - 8/10

It can be difficult at the best of times to separate what we know of an artist from their released works, especially when we are able to go online and simply read their press bio or Wikipedia entry.  This is less of a problem with younger bands but can still be an issue when they get any measure of footing within the musical community.  For Michael Angelakos, instigator and ever-present talking head of eletro-pop band Passion Pit, this casual and intensive notoriety came about with the bands quick ascent after releasing their critically lauded and commercially successful debut record Manners in 2009.  And with recent interviews documenting his public battle with Bi-Polar disorder, it’s difficult to talk about Passion Pit’s new album Gossamer without at least spending some time looking at it as an examination of the effects that this disorder had on him as he went about the process of writing and recording the record.  And far from doing the album a disservice by placing in this context, I think that the record is a far more complete emotional statement from Angelakos by looking at it as such.

Ever since their initial Chunk of Change EP was released back in 2008,  Passion Pit have always had a knack for marrying disheartening lyrical observations with upbeat rhythms and remarkably catchy beats, similar—in terms of lyrical content anyway—to bands such as The Pernice Brothers or The Magnetic Fields.  Take a line like “You’ll see I am no criminal/I’m down on both bad knees/I’m just too much a coward/to admit when I’m in need” from opening track Take A Walk and you’ll see how the elastic beat and synth-pop instrumentation that wraps excitedly around the lyrics soften the blow of what is ostensibly Angelakos(the narrator) admitting his own culpability within the song for being a deficient father and husband.  This kind of duality in purpose goes a long way in showing that Passion Pit are more than just a band whose initial album felt overly indebted, though still wholly enjoyable, to the technicolor bursts of bands like Cut Copy and M83.  The rise in musical ability and the expansion of sound from Manners to Gossamer seems like such a vast distance that it would appear to be the product of a handful of interstitial records and not just the time between a debut and a sophomore album.

It’s hard not to read too much into this seemingly purposeful display of opposing musical ideals.  On one hand, it’s a clever and effective way to lure the listener in before revealing the final objective of the song, which is usually to show that beneath all the syrupy synths and ridiculously hummable melodies, there is a bleakness that tries to stay hidden and wants to be allowed to grow unchecked.  But he sings so sweetly and inclusively that it makes feeling disheartened about what we’re hearing all the more difficult.  And it’s here that the duality of the music comes to the forefront. Is it his intention to reveal the rotten core of society/ourselves through this abjectly sugary music or does he merely want to soften our realization of the world by layering the detailed descriptions of ill-advised relationships and beaten characters with this populist synthetic concoction?  Or am I reading too much into it?  Like I said, it’s hard to hear this music without considering our prior knowledge of the man.  This attention to personal history makes even the slightest possible reference in the songs into something to be mulled over and dissected.  I think that as much as he may not have wanted the album to have to carry this weight, it was all but assured when his health problems were made public to his fans.  But far from being lost in his intensely personal struggles, the album gains a greater meaning and understanding of its subject when we view it as a workspace for Angelakos to deal with his personal problems.

There are no small statements on Gossamer.  Even when dealing with things that are so obviously personal in nature, this album surrounds them in a vibrant, disorienting haze of brilliant hues and textures.   Lead-off track Take A Walk, with its chiming synths, chorused vocals, and chest thumping bass that would make Daft Punk jealous, makes a strong argument that we’ve just been tossed into a maximalist blender of ecstatic synths and walls of Spector-esque sonic euphoria, and while the rest of the album does follow a similar model, it’s the way in which he incorporates current indie rock fetishes that distinguishes him from his electro-pop peers.  I’ve never been a fan of the recent integration of early 90’s R&B beats into indie music; it seems that few bands have been able to pull it off without sounding completely beholden to those influences.  In the end, influences should serve the artist and not the other way around.  But on Gossamer, Angelakos has come extremely close to getting this specific mixture right.  And while I still hear those same distinguishing tendencies on some of these songs, this album finally makes a defensible argument in favor of including these kinds of rhythmically driven influences.  

One of the most obvious examples of this appropriation is Constant Conversations, an R&B inflected, pitch-shifted vocal pop concoction that runs the gamut from the Common and Kanye West favored vocalizing to the decidedly assured sounding influence of R. Kelly, all the while singing “I never wanna hurt you baby/I’m just a mess with a name and a price/and now I’m drunker than before they/ told me drinking doesn’t make me nice.”  It’s another example of him dealing with this internal breakdown through the innocuous sounds of synth-pop.  The more that you listen to and dissect these songs, the more you begin to realize that this may be the only way that he can successfully work through his own issues, to confront these troubles head-on in a static environment would be too intense, too potentially damaging.  And so we get these intensely bright, enveloping pop songs propelled by his need for resolution.  I can say that any motivations that I attribute to Angelakos in this matter are entirely my own assumptions and projections but this record functions as a strange sort of mirror in which our own expectations and fears are magnified by his frequently disorienting lyrics.

At times, the album feels as though it might burst from an overabundance of ideas but Angelakos' deft hand constantly shifts and settles each part into place so meticulously that the album holds together when it really shouldn’t.  Songs like On My Way and I’ll Be Alright, which layer multiple sections of synths, processed vocals, and thumping beats on top of a flexible plasticine skeleton, showcase his ability to keep dozens of ideas in the air simultaneously, while still keeping the drive and intent of the song intact.  It’s a fair bit of musical juggling that in lesser hands could have quickly fallen apart and derailed any momentum that the album had accumulated up to that point.  But even on these tracks, some of the most vividly realized of the record, we’re still slogging knee deep lyrically (“I’m so self-loathing that it’s hard for me to see” from I’ll Be Alright) in his subconscious.  

Gossamer seems to be so filled with open interpretations and references to Angelakos’s personal life that it can be easier at times to simply take the album at face value.  And on those terms alone, the music shines brighter than most of his pop contemporaries.  In fact, the album is so successful on this level that I could choose any given song and laud it as one of the best tracks on the album.  Consistency is not an issue that Gossamer has in any fashion.  But this album isn’t just about the radiant sun-sized synths or candy-coated beats.  Angelakos has made it about him, and far from being just another vanity project or a place to air generic emotional baggage, this album represents what all artists strive for—a complete and intensive examination of themselves through music.  We never get a clear sense of closure by the time the martial beats and sparkling synths fade out at the end of album closer Where We Belong.  But maybe that’s the point.  After all the public scrutiny and longed for musical catharsis, maybe Angelakos hasn’t reached his own resolution.  Maybe he just needs us to be there with him.