Over the course of 2015 Michael Angelakos released Kindred, announced his divorce from Kristy Mucci, and came out as gay. Now, with a nearly unpublicized free release of Passion Pit’s fourth full-length album, Angelakos returns to the foundations that made fans fall in love with his honesty and the band’s unique compositions. He simultaneously launched the Wishart Group, an advocacy group aimed at “providing musicians with legal, educational and healthcare services” with a special emphasis on mental health treatment. It’s clear that after a two-year hiatus from the public eye, Angelakos is ready to step into the spotlight again.
Honesty and Production
There’s an inherent—and politely ignored—contradiction in producing self-described “honest” art in almost any context. Alva Noë, a cognitive science philosopher who writes on aesthetics remarks that art is an inherently self-aware undertaking. There are things we do as humans that don’t require conscious mediation and things that happen spontaneously. In a way, the suggestion is that there are things that simply happen to us, and out of us, without conscious intent and direction. Art, Noë claims, is not one of these things. If the project of human life is organized in any way then art and artistic endeavors are re-organizational activities. It’s not necessarily that art is artifice but rather than art is artificial. The similarities between these words are not, Noë would have us believe, a matter of mere coincidence. So what does this have to do with Passion Pit?
Angelakos wrote that “Passion Pit became my way of taking the life-threatening illness I deal with on a daily basis and turning it into a mode of analysis […] I found no better way of explaining the inexplicable, of describing images and scenes unfathomable, of taking a physical pain and euphoric madness, bundling it, packaging it in a particular fashion that was my attempt to make it as beautiful as I possibly could make it.” Philosophers have long claimed a connection between the good, the true, and the beautiful and it seems that Angelakos is no exception. “Beauty,” he continues, “does not make things better, but it allows us to view otherwise ugly and terrifying things honestly, at least with or over time.” In other words, there’s a philosophic claim here: making something beautiful does not obscure its truth, but reveals it in a particular way. There’s an honesty, he claims, in taking something terrifying and making it beautiful.
Already, however, there’s a little bit of tension here between what we consider beautiful and what we consider honest. Honesty is usually equated with truth, and Angelakos sustains that connection. But if art is a re-organizational practice, or if it’s in any way connected to artifice then what reason to we have to believe that it’s honest? To say that Tremendous Sea of Love is an honest representation of Angelakos’ manic episode (a claim he makes barely half a page later in his open letter) is somehow confused by the claim that art is never really honest, or true, but is always a way of taking our base-level experiences and reorganizing them in some way. There is already an inconvenient reconciliation that one has to undertake in producing honest art. How much of that honesty is artificially produced? Angelakos keeps talking about how the new album is a continuation of a conversation he’s having concerning his mental illness. If the conversation was really a conversation and if it really were un-produced in the way that we traditionally associate with honesty, then it wouldn’t be carried out in musical terms, it would be a verbal project at most. Perhaps, however, this is a poor way of framing the discussion.
So What is Artistic Honesty?
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (cliché as it might be as high-school level reading) reminds us that there are two ways to tell a true story. You can say what happened or you can tell your audience what’s real. You can’t do both. The contradiction that occurs in producing honest art is performative, we know it’s there and we do our best to ignore it because there are things that exist exclusively in artistic spheres that don’t translate well into less production-focused activities. What Angelakos can say with his music and what he can say with ordinary language are just two different ways of telling the truth. It’s an odd feature of art that it can get the point across honestly without relying on the stripped-down methods of communication we ordinarily associate with telling the truth. This even dovetails well with Noë’s claims. Part of his thesis regarding art and human life is that all life is organized and reorganized. There’s no way to escape the reorganizational tendencies of art. Even the parts of our lives that we usually thing aren’t in any way associated with art are somehow shaped by the re-organizational activities that art introduces, examines, and proliferates. Our fashion choices, he even says, are informed by art and the pictorial organization of our lives. There would be no point to dressing a certain way, he argues, if there were no way for us to take a picture of ourselves, literally, mentally, subconsciously. Picture taking is an inherently artistic practice because it involves an integration of visual features within a restricted context for a specific purpose. But this is all needlessly complicated, the basic point here is that when a person is involved in with art in any capacity (and we all are in some capacity) it’s impossible for the rest of their lives to remain unaffected. In a way, the difficult production and obvious digital manipulation of Tremendous Sea of Love brings to the forefront the manipulative tactics that are always at work in communication. It isn’t honest by stripping away the layers of artifice that influence communication, it’s honest by showing them off, bringing our attention to them, putting them on display.
Enough with the philosophy! Is the album any good?
In a word: yes. Don’t go into it expecting Gossamer or Kindred, okay? Tremendous Sea of Love is not a cheery album. Just because it was written during a manic episode doesn’t mean that it’s going to be happy. In fact, let’s just take a second to break this down. Angelakos started Passion Pit because he needed something to do on days when he felt his mind was running faster than his blood, during the weeks that would go by when he could get out of bed, but when ever second felt filled with more options than could ever be actualized, and weighty with the disappointment and anxiety of squandered potential. Just because he isn’t suicidal doesn’t mean that he’s happy, and this album does the best job yet of making his audience get that. Gossamer was also written during a manic episode, but it doesn’t quite have that same mind-outrunning-attention-span feel to it. There’s something in the production of Gossamer that screams euphoric, not unhinged.
Tremendous Sea of Love also does the best job I’ve heard yet of getting across the way that his mind words during those episodes. It would be easy to write off the three instrumental interludes and various spoken-word interjections as representational of depressive episodes, but I don’t think that’s quite right. They’re not long enough. Clinically speaking, for depressive or manic episodes to really raise enough concern for a diagnosis (in Angelakos’ case, for bipolar disorder) they have to last more than a few days at a time. It’s the repetition and inescapable nature of the various moods that make them an illness. The interludes just aren’t weighty enough, but they’re perfectly placed and stressed to fill in for the nagging moments of doubt that happen during manic episodes, the little signs that depression is on it’s way back.
The album, in short, does what it’s supposed to. I sincerely doubt that anyone is going to be listening to this song on the highway, riding to the beach, or on long summer days with a beer in hand. If you’re looking for that, there are individual songs that might work for you, like “Somewhere Up There” (the first part anyway) or “To The Other Side” (sections of it) or even “I’m Perfect” if you’re looking for that hypomanic feel to counteract how happy and peaceful things seem. Basically, if you’re looking for good singles, go to the heavily-produced Kindred or even Gossamer. It’s an amazing album, but to call it fun would be to disregard the weight and seriousness that the title track, or “For Sondra” bring to the work. The intensely personal tracks too, like “Hey K” don’t really fit well with descriptive words that stress the light-hearted, or entertaining tracks found on earlier releases. Tremendous Sea of Love is a profoundly mature experience, one that isn’t exactly conducive to casual listening.