opinion by ZACHARY BERNSTEIN
A fellow PMA writer recently quipped, “80s nostalgia now feels like it’s lasted longer than the actual 80s.” He’s absolutely right – but the fault for this seemingly ingrained generational yearning does not lie entirely with the artists. Music critics and fans alike (myself very much included) enjoy endlessly equating the new with the old, and lately it seems like every band that trots out a synthesizer and danceable beat will be slathered with the compliment/epithet of channeling the Reagan decade.
Over the course of its five-year career, Passion Pit has been one such band. Michael Angelakos’ third effort Kindred shamelessly invites, nay, begs, such a trans-decade comparison. For God’s sake, the opening refrain of the album is “1985 was a good year!” But it’s important to remember that Passion Pit began as Angelakos’ musical gift to his then-girlfriend, an EP that gained increased Internet traction thanks to social media. It’s the Facebook-age equivalent of Lloyd Dobler holding up his boombox outside Ione Skye’s window, and it underscores the fact that even while finding inspiration in previous decades of music, Passion Pit remains distinctly a product of this moment. Despite the rainbow-brite synths and gleeful falsettos, there’s a stomping energy and frankly, a loudness to their music that belies the band’s genesis in a post-alt rock era, a moment in which the divide between mainstream and “indie” music continues to crumble. Passion Pit is more than the sum of its nostalgia.
That being said, Passion Pit is also fundamentally a one-trick pony. Angelakos does one thing – glittery dance-pop with a side of irony - and he does it quite well. Passion Pit lives in the sweet spot of “mainstream indie” music, a place where tween girls, frat bros, and self-aware music bloggers can all equally enjoy the same song without sacrificing any of their social cache. Passion Pit fans will arrive at Kindred knowing exactly what to expect – a collection of Paxil-laced Pixi Stix with stomping beats, whiz-bang electronic flourishes, and a generous helping of keyboards that could just as easily score the next Mario Party video game as your next sunny afternoon outdoors. This is music as forceful antidepressant – the album trades on its familiar comforts. Neon stomper “Until We Can’t (Let’s Go)” heavily echoes Manners’ “Little Secrets.” The shamelessly dance-around-your-room-happy “Five Foot Ten (I)” is a close cousin to Gossamer’s “Carried Away.” There is hardly much variation from the well-established formula, but syrupy sweet jams like “My Brother Taught Me How To Swim” and “All I Want” are pretty irresistible in carefully measured doses. Just be sure to keep the insulin pump handy.
Some of Kindred’s tracks number amongst the band’s best. Just try to deny the utterly euphoric rush of opener “Lifted Up (1985).” The album’s intention is right there in the opening salvo – this is music for uplift. Angelakos hosts a master class in power-pop over a brisk three and a half minutes, sprinkling strikingly high crystal-clear falsetto, a bouncing synth beat, and chirping guitar over a narrative of romantic redemption. Kindred’s superlative track, “Where the Sky Hangs” takes its cues from what is arguably the best song in Passion Pit’s catalog, “Constant Conversations,” and goes for subtlety over pomp. “Where the Sky Hangs” easily cuts the deepest groove of its brethren, exercising a deep funk beat and twinkling electronics accompanied by one of Angelakos’ more restrained, less histrionic vocal performances. Not all of the quieter moments work quite as well. Tracks like “Dancing on the Graves” and “Looks Like Rain” are admittedly pretty essential for the flow of a Passion Pit album. They mitigate the effects of such an otherwise overpowering sonic sugar high, but as isolated tracks, Angelakos’ crooning grows increasingly cloying while the instrumentals are serviceable, if forgettable. Thankfully, Angelakos keeps Kindred at a breezy ten tracks before the sweet taste grows sour.
Kindred may not particularly concerned with revolutionizing the band’s sound, but the album’s lyrical narrative is actually quite compelling. Angelakos’ battles with bipolar disorder and depression have become an important part of the band’s ethos, and the singer-songwriter has described Kindred as the closing chapter in a journey of self-discovery. If Manners was the breakdown and Gossamer was the mea culpa, then Kindred is the statement of renewed purpose. Over the course of ten tracks, Angelakos weaves twin tales of childhood and adulthood, illustrating that one’s process of growing up never fully ends, no matter what one’s age may be. “Until We Can’t (Let’s Go)” is hardly the carpe noctem anthem that its title would suggest; rather, it’s a sweet, if admittedly a little grating, song about a married couple taking the plunge to buy their first home. “All I want is to be alone,” chants Angelakos on the so-named “All I Want” – it’s a statement that could just as easily be an adult’s plea for solitude as a child’s temper tantrum. “You said I’m wrong and that I’m five foot ten” is a lyric painted as a lover’s disagreement, but in a tone reminiscent of youthful taunting. Indignation, sadness, and fear color Kindred’s otherwise effervescent mood in a similar manner to Gossamer, but the limitations of Angelakos’ mental illness are less prominently on display in this effort. Rather, embracing his demons is but one part of maturity.
There’s a good quote from a mediocre movie called Liberal Arts in which Richard Jenkins tells Josh Radnor’s protagonist – “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.” That sentiment pervades Kindred, right down to its artwork. A number of the promo single releases have featured pictures of two children in various states of youthful wonderment, while the final cover art itself shows a young boy turned away from the family dinner table, a mix of apprehension and boredom across his face. Kindred demonstrates that even now, Angelakos still feels that same apprehension, but with greater courage to face the unknown. His third record perfectly distills Passion Pit’s mission statement to a mixture of musical nostalgia and energy that coalesces quite well with larger messages of accepting the past in order to embrace the future. Sure, Michael Angelakos’ music might cling to the superficialities of the 80s, but in reality he seems quite content with where he is at this very moment. B