Album Review: Passion Pit – Gossamer [Columbia]
Most of the world probably thinks that Passion Pit are a fun synth-pop band. Go to one of their shows, and you’ll dance, sing and jump around with a smile on your face. Hear one of their songs on the radio and there’s a good chance you’ll sing along mindlessly only to have a chorus stuck in your head for hours afterwards. But how much do you really know about Passion Pit? How closely have you listened to their songs and taken to heart what’s being said in the lyrics? We so often listen to music as an escape or a distraction from our own lives that we can forget somebody’s heart and soul might have been poured into a song or album. That’s particularly true of pop music, which is more often thought of as a disposable treat. It’s the equivalent of auditory candy, never actually substantial or healthy enough to constitute a musical meal. Not every pop song or pop record is as light and fancy free as it might appear on the surface however, and it’s only through seeing that depth that we can truly begin to understand music as an art form. As the frontman for Passion Pit, Michael Angelakos writes songs about his own life. The initial Passion Pit recordings that formed the Chunk of Change EP were written and pieced together in Angelakos’ bedroom by himself, in an attempt to win the affections of a girl. There’s both a sweetness and a sense of desperation coming out of it, and though it caught on like wildfire with music lovers via Myspace, the girl it was about didn’t feel the same way and things didn’t work out. With the loss of that girl came success, and all the pressures that came along with it. Over the course of a year, the band would secure a major label record deal and put out their debut album Manners to widespread critical acclaim. Singles like “Sleepyhead” and “Little Secrets” were radio hits as well, and the band toured in larger and larger venues.
Such popularity and praise are the dreams of many musicians, but Angelakos doesn’t quite feel that way. Fortune and fame can bring out the worst in some people, and the pressure it can put on the artists can only add to that. In the three years since Passion Pit released their last album, the band has not stopped working, which turned out to be to their detriment. Unknown to most except those very close to Angelakos, he’s been diagnosed as bipolar for a few years now. While he has taken plenty of medication to help manage the roller coaster highs and lows the disorder brings, he still has severe bouts of depression and has attempted or thought about committing suicide on several occasions. He’s spent the last few years in and out of mental health facilities, and much to the chagrin of his record label, spent months trying and failing to make progress on new music as he dealt with these issues. Most recently, the band has been forced to cancel many of their tour dates so Angelakos can work on some of his symptoms. He maintains the band will try and tour as much as possible for now, however it’s unlikely that will continue for a whole lot longer. There’s a distinct impermanence affixed to Passion Pit’s work now, and the hope is they make the most of it. From all this pain and strife and difficulty comes Gossamer, the band’s second album. If you failed to fully grasp or take seriously some of the darker moments on Manners, hopefully this new record pushes you to more closely examine and think critically about what these songs are about before blindly jumping around and memorizing the hook.
The first single and opening track on Gossamer is “Take A Walk,” a light and bouncy number about how Angelakos’ parents struggled financially when he was growing up. It’s a fun-sounding song about a not-so-fun topic, which is how most of the album goes. There’s something just a little off about that track though, and it has nothing to do with lyrics and everything to do with structure. The verses and chorus don’t mesh as well as they should, creating an imbalance that diminishes its overall effectiveness. It may bear the band’s signature sound but doesn’t ignite as intended. The following track “I’ll Be Alright” is a far better example of Passion Pit 2.0. Filled with skittering synths and a hyperactive melody, its hook may not have incredible staying power but it’s complex oddities can still give you a total sugar rush. Yet all that betrays what the song is actually about, which is about his battles with depression and how it’s affected his romantic relationships. “Well I’ve made so many messes/And this love has grown so restless/Your whole life’s been nothing but this/I won’t let you go loveless,” he sings in the chorus, trying to tell his girlfriend he’ll be fine without her. Of course when he talks about drinking and taking pills and manipulating people to selfishly get his way, you get the sense that might not actually be the case. He’s had a change of heart by the end of the song, instead of telling her to leave, he now says he won’t let her unless he knows he’ll be alright. That’s not a very nice thing to do to somebody – jerking them around like that – but that’s almost par for the course sometimes for people with emotional problems. Angelakos being able to acknowledge that is a great sign though, with the hope of learning from such lessons.
If Gossamer has one sure fire hit on it, “Carried Away” is it. The verses build perfectly to the gigantic jump around chorus that’s both airy and memorable. The topic du jour this time is a much more universal one too, playing up the disparity between rich and poor. At the end of the final verse, Angelakos leads what’s sure to be a live staple chant of “We all have problems,” suggesting that no matter if you’re rich or poor, mentally stable or instable, that nobody is in great shape all the time. The album’s first ballad, the R&B jam of “Constant Conversations,” finds his relationship in bad shape due to excessive alcoholism. “I’m just a mess with the name and the price/And now I’m drunker than before babe/Told me drinking doesn’t make me nice,” he bemoans knowingly. Those same issues surface again via “On My Way,” only this time they come off even more sad and desperate than before. While he proposes in the chorus that they get married to “consecrate this messy love,” he later makes the argument that, “We’re both so broken, long done hoping/Is that we’ll stumble upon our love again.” It comes across as a plea to spend your life with somebody because you’re both screwed up to the point where nobody else would want you. Lines like, “All these demons, I can beat them” and “Everyday’s another chance” shine glimmers of hope across the track, as do the various glockenspiels, bells and xylophones, which help make it sound like Sigur Ros turned pop. Yet one of the key things about this album is that despite the platitudes that strive to create positive vibes in bad situations, we’re never entirely sure that Angelakos truly believes in himself or what he’s saying.
The most positive and uplifting moment on Gossamer comes almost right at the end of the album with “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy.” It’s certainly not the poppiest moment on the record, but it’s one of those slower sort of anthem-ballads where people raise their lighters (or cell phones) to the sky and sing along like they truly believe in the lyrics. Instead of ending on that high note, the final track on the album is “Where We Belong,” which is about Angelakos’ suicide attempt a few years ago. With pulsating electronic beats and dramatic violins as the instrumental backing, his tone comes across as very reflective as he recounts the experience (“And then I’m lifted up/Out of the crimson tub/The bath begins to drain/And from the floor he prays away all my pain”). He has said in interviews that in his mind the archangel Gabriel was present with him at the time, hence the line, “Do you believe in me too, Gabriel?” The last line of the entire album is, “All I’ve ever wanted was to be happy and make you proud.” The “you” in that is likely his fiancee, but could also be anyone from his family, friends or it might even be directed right at the listener. Angelakos might never be able to be truly happy the way that he wants to be, but at the very least with Gossamer he’s created something that he can and should be proud of. Hopefully he keeps seeking proper treatment and is able to get the help he needs. Smart, challenging and emotionally stirring pop records like this don’t come along often, so the longer he’s around and able to make them, the luckier we are to hear them.