Album: Gone Now
Audience: Bleachers fans only this time around. Fans of fun. aren’t likely to find what they’re looking for this time around.
Bottom Line: It’s terrible, it’s brilliant. It’s a healthy mix of both, just like last time.
Stand Out Songs: “Let’s Get Married,” “I Miss Those Days”
Bleachers the Band
As a band, Bleachers is synonymous with Jack Antonoff and his particular brand of self-confidence. His indulgence in disjointed, overly-complicated, anthemic sing-along singles is largely built on the musical lineage of “Bullet.” The bright guitar, the chimes in the background, the a cappella interjections in the chorus, and even the dual drum kits that Antonoff employs all pay homage to the 2010 Steel Train hit. The hyperbolic lyrics first appear during Antonoff’s tenure with Steel Train. He sings, “we are the last generation of hope” and “I swear I’ll never let you go.” Quotes like those are a good indication of what Antonoff is capable of, both good and bad. At its best, Bleachers is an unabashedly ambitious band honestly trying to write the song of the decade on the greatest album ever written. The funny thing is that Antonoff sometimes comes so close to succeeding that Top 40 DJs are fooled for a few months and the country gets to hear the latest single every two hours like clockwork. All. Year. Long. “I Wanna Get Better” managed to survive the early spring (released February 18th, 2014) and transition perfectly from spring-break anthem to summer hit. It wasn’t until late September that the novelty wore off. It’s a testament to Antonoff’s ambition that his first real single didn’t sound played out until 6 months after its release.
How about when Antonoff doesn’t quite make the cut with the new track? When that happens, his songs don’t just sputter and die. They crash and burn in spectacular fashion. I’m still not sure anyone knows why Yoko Ono ended up on Strange Desire. She makes her appearance on the penultimate track which (in a now-established tradition) features a reprise of the album’s first track. This track actually sums up the issues that fans and critics alike have regarding Bleachers. When Antonoff’s songs hit the mark, they sound amazing. But when they miss the mark, they were aimed at such an esoteric target already that they just sound disorganized, scattered, and frankly awful.
Bleachers doesn’t know how to do anything half-way. This is an essential characteristic of the band, one that they couldn’t change if they tried. We all know those people that just have no chill. Antonoff is one of those people. It works to his advantage on tracks from his first album like “Rollercoaster,” and of course “Wild Heart.” In other situations, it leaves his fans wondering what they did to deserve such a confusing performance. Take, for example, the re-release of Strange Desire under the title Terrible Thrills, Vol. 2 which (as far as anyone can tell) is just the original album remixed by a different collaborator on each track. (Can anyone tell me what Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, or Sia did to deserve a place on that album?) Songs by Bleachers are the audible-equivalent of refusing to proofread. Occasionally brilliant, but sometimes you just want to forget that it ever existed.
So what are we expecting from Gone Now? It’s hard to say. Some of us might be hoping for a more consistent album. Some of us are hoping that it’ll be the same scattered flashes of brilliance. Given the band’s track-record it seems likely that it’ll be another attempt at Antonoff’s magnum opus. Yet another shot for the moon that’s left floating out into the void more often than not. Whatever it is, it’ll be a wholehearted attempt at greatness.
Track Listing Peculiarities
Regarding the placement of this reprise: I still can’t tell why his side A, track 1 songs deserve such repetition, but the concept is at least indicative of a good grasp of track list organization. What does the audience need to understand the final track? To remember what the first track was. There’s a symmetry here that Antonoff is clearly attentive to, but the concept would work better if the reprise were well executed. Antonoff clearly has an idea of what essential features the audience needs to remember from the first song, but his idea of what those features are and what they actually are doesn’t seem to line up. Both “I’m Ready to Move On/Wild Heart Reprise” and “I’m Ready to Move On/Micky Mantle Reprise” fall short. They’re weird, they’re interesting, and they’re even decent reminders of the leadoff tracks in some sense. The problem is, they’re just not very good songs.
Strange Desire front-loads single-worthy songs to keep the listener’s attention through the end of side A. I think most people would prefer that he wasn’t so heavy-handed with upbeat tracks so early in the album. It seems that Antonoff learned his lesson the first time though. Gone Now manages to be a little more balanced than Strange Desire. “Let’s Get Married” the side B, track 1 manages to live up to the expectations set for the secondary leadoff track. Even “I Miss Those Days” is a solid addition to the album. The album ends up sounding remarkably balanced in a way that demonstrates the way Antonoff and Bleachers matured over the past three years.
I have a personal soft spot for “Dream of Mickey Mantle” just as a baseball fan who gets a good chuckle out of the fact that Jack Antonoff has far more in common with Ted Williams than Mantle. Antonoff (like Williams, actually) seems pretty jealous of the fame and recognition that Mantle achieved. However, Mantle is quoted saying “somebody once asked me if I ever went up to the plate trying to hit a home run. I said, ‘sure, every time.’” At least in that respect, Mantle and Antonoff share quite a lot in common. Antonoff set out to hit a home run with this album just like the last. Gone Now isn’t really a home run. It’s an 0-2 count, with a runner on third, and a bunt. He’s either in the process of striking out or pulling off the most brilliant strategical play possible. The major issue with the album, I think, is that by the end we don’t have a good sense of what happened during that at-bat. It’s confusingly well-constructed for just how hit-and-miss the tracks actually are.
“Don’t Take the Money,” a track featuring (and co-written by) Lorde, is a stand out track referenced three tracks earlier on “Dream of Mickey Mantle.” Similarly, “Let’s Get Married” and “I Miss Those Days” are great tracks that elevate an otherwise unremarkable album. There’s a sense throughout the album that Antonoff bit off more than he could chew. He’s clearly overreaching his talents as a producer (although he’s comfortably within his abilities as a musician) but “Let’s Get Married” and “I Miss Those Days” offer listeners the best evidence that he’s at least capable of greatness even if he only stumbles on it every once in a while. Bottom line, it’s tracks like “I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise” and “Nothing Is U” that make the stand-out singles sound more like luck than talent. It’s clear to the casual listener that there are both fantastic tracks on this album, and some spectacularly bad ones. Maybe none of these tracks are quite as bad as Yoko Ono managed to make the last album’s penultimate offering, but the album is more miss than hit than the last one (to continue the baseball metaphors).
The struggle I have in properly addressing Gone Now is that it is, for all intents and purposes, a really well constructed album. Technically speaking, it satisfies all the rules of organization. There’s nothing out of place. The pacing is especially good, alternating between semi-anthemic songs and audible “down time” for the listener to recover and get ready for the next upbeat track. This doesn’t sound like it would present a struggle, but the problem arises because Gone Now just isn’t a very good album either. It’s constructed well, but there aren’t any tracks that just jump out as brilliant. There are, unfortunately, tracks that stand out as particularly bad. While rearranging the album wouldn’t help, and there aren’t any “filler” tracks that should be cut, I get the sense that the songs worth listening to would be better released as an EP.
To ask the important question, finally: Is Gone Now worth a listen? Is it any good? Well, if you were a fan of Strange Desire you’ll be pleased by about half the songs on Gone Now, which (let’s be honest) was what you were expecting anyway. If this is your first introduction to Bleachers, you might want to go listen to some singles first before investing in the album as a whole. Antonoff created a master-class in nuanced, complex, informative album creation but the raw materials he had at his disposal (the songs, in this analogy) were supplied by two drastically different craftsmen. On the one hand, the singles are brilliant Top-40-turns-alternative hits. On the other hand, the tracks that Antonoff uses to create a consistent narrative, to bring his pre-fun. style and sound back sound rushed, sloppy, and created more to fill a gap on the album than to be standalone works of art. Gone Now is true-to-style for Bleachers: alternately brilliant and terrible, equal parts immeasurable inspiration and poor studio production.