Earlier this week, Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos revealed, in a Pitchfork cover story, that he has been struggling with bipolar disorder since the age of 18. The piece, which goes into great detail about Angelakos’ ongoing battle with the disorder – a battle that seems to have intensified in the wake of Passion Pit’s abrupt entrance into the spotlight – sheds light on the band’s recent show cancelations and Angelakos’ promise to “work on improving my mental health.” It also, to a large degree, presents better context in which to understand Passion Pit’s music — shimmering and manic but pegged to a dark underside.
Gossamer, Passion Pit’s second full-length release, comes nearly three years after the band’s debut album, Manners, which itself dropped almost a year after Angelakos’ Valentine’s Day demos caught the attention of music blogs and major labels in 2008. The gestation period, long by today’s publish-or-perish standards, belies a record that wasn’t easy for Angelakos to make. It’s not the easiest to listen to, either. Dark topics and production difficulties slam against Passion Pit’s glittery sound to create an album that, while peppered with catchy melodies, is overstuffed and under-edited. Gossamer is a tortured beast, disguised in a crunchy candy shell.
Part of what made Passion Pit’s early material so great was its spiraling, I’ll-go-as-fast-as-I-want-to attitude, with songs like “Sleepyhead,” and “Make Light” hurtling toward an unknown destination with reckless abandon. Angelakos’ voice, equal parts helium and panic, sounds perfect in that light, stretched to the edges and urgently pressing to get the song out before time is up. That feeling is nearly absent on Gossamer, though, with ready-to-race songs pinned to pulsing drumbeats that constrain the music. The songs seem designed to be fun, but within very prescribed limits, and Angelakos’ voice seems fragile rather than feverish.
Gossamer’s kicks off with “Take A Walk,” a stomping tale of fiscal discord and conservative politics told from the point of view of a recent immigrant – an interesting decision given the sheer amount of internal reflection on this album. Immediately following that opener, Angelakos jumps into his most personal song to date, “I’ll Be Alright,” a hopefully self-fulfilling prophecy that includes confessions like “I drink a gin and take a couple of more pills” and “I’m so self-loathing that it’s hard for me to see reality from what I dream.” These first two songs, disconnected and sonically discombobulated, have nuggets of melodies and sometimes great lyrics, but don’t mesh together well; it’s an off-balance start to a record that never seems to find its footing.
Partially, that’s because Angelakos starts down so many roads without ever completing the trip down one. “Constant Conversations,” Gossamer’s best track, plays with a slower, rubbery pace as a wistful Angelakos croons over the top of female back-up singers. “Mirrored Sea” follows that, frenetic, synth-laden, and dispassionate, complete with a Schneider TM-esque robovoice bridge. Eighth track, “Hideaway,” is covered in skittering, crackling noise that serves little purpose, while “Two Veils Hide My Face,” which follows, counters with a 34-second a cappella interlude that is as wonderful as it is out of place. “On My Way” sounds like a Volvo commercial waiting to happen.
There is good stuff here, too. Angelakos’ songwriting has taken a leap forward, with lyrics that hold much more meaning than previous, surface-level analysis. “Love Is Greed” is a euphoric-sounding examination of love that deftly avoids cliche. “Constant Conversations,” about a particularly difficult stage in Angelakos’ relationship with fiancé Kristy Mucci, is heartbreaking and endlessly replayable. “Two Veils” is a beautiful bite-sized experiment. “Where We Belong,” though a bit overwrought, is a somber, album-ending take on Angelakos’ suicide attempt at the age of 19.
The aforementioned Pitchfork feature goes in depth about Gossamer’s recording process, detailing three fruitless and frustrating months with various producers at Los Angeles’ Paramour mansion studio, followed by a return to both Brooklyn and to Manners producer Chris Zane. Zane and Angelakos eventually co-produced the record, which engineer Alex Aldi described as “a nightmare to make.” Said Zane, “I would leave the studio, go home, stare at the ceiling, take an Ambien, wake up and do it all over again– for four months straight.” It’s no surprise, then, that the album is scattered and often overwrought.
Within the dense tracks there are still vintage Angelakos moments — the type that force you to sing along, whether you want to or not, by the time you’re on your third listen — but they are much further below the surface than on past releases, stuck beneath overly complex ornamentation. Rather than allowing his melodies to sparkle, Angelakos globs a sheen onto entire tracks, crafting a sound that can be tiresome and difficult to parse. “Don’t get it right, get it written,” author James Thurber used to say; editing is the hardest part, and it seems like no one had much energy for it by the time this album was being put to bed.
At its best points, Gossamer shows flashes of the brilliance that made Angelakos an immediate all-star in the indie pop world. At its worst, it makes you wonder whether “Sleepyhead” – and to some extent Manners – caught lightning in a bottle and marked an early peak in Passion Pit’s career. Given Angelakos’ recent struggles, it’s hard not to project and say we’re seeing a songwriter through his songs. But I think we’re equally seeing a band through its recording process. The two aren’t necessarily completely separate, but neither are they identical. Great songs often come from tough places, but Angelakos needs a stronger guide to help push Passion Pit to be as good as its potential. This isn’t exactly a sophomore slump, but it is a jumbled mess. [B-]