Passion Pit’s “Gossamer”: Trying To Find A Balance

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By Brendan Klinkenberg

Last week, Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos opened up for a depth-plumbing digital story on Pitchfork. It was a far more candid interview than the relatively quiet musician has ever given, showing a side to him we had never seen before through a stream of personal revelations shedding light on his mentally taxing battles with bipolar disorder, fame, and artistic impulses. It’s a very open, very human piece of journalism, and something that will color the way we listen to Angelakos’ music from here on out.

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Today, personal access to artists comes with a wireless connection. It’s getting easier and easier to “know” the people behind the music, and it would be remiss to claim that this tenuous connection does not affect the reception of the music. It’s impossible to keep outside information, opinions and beliefs from encroaching on an auditory artform, despite how much we might want to keep things strictly objective. Stories like the one Angelakos told prompt a different listening experience than if Gossamer were presented without any context.

The background isn’t everything—it’s still easy to assume that the listener without any background knowledge could still notice the restlessly dark themes of this album. The references to Angelakos’ personal life are all brewing just beneath the surface, ready to be heard. However, with actions like Frank Ocean’s recent open letter dominating the way we think about music in 2012, it’s safe to say the personal narrative matters. Ocean’s story was genuinely touching (and important) to nearly everyone who read it, and its existence affected, subtly and bluntly, how people heard Channel Orange. In the same way that album prompted strained ears trying to catch the gender pronouns, Gossamer takes on new meaning with Angelakos’ personal struggles in the back of the mind.

The first, very obvious connection to be made is how believable it is that Passion Pit’s music is reflective of its creator’s condition. Their full-length debut is a frantically happy-sounding album. Angelakos touts the loneliness and melancholy that exists on Manners, but they rarely shine through very convincingly. The music itself is constantly pushing towards new heights of euphoria with hyperactive abandon, retaining just enough of an attention span to double down on the irresistible riffs when they materialized. There’s a honeyed sheen to that album that made its indie-meets-rave anthems an immediate crossover hit.

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Gossamer doesn’t have that same unhinged energy. It’s not a direct sequel, it’s checking in with someone after a few years and finding that they’ve changed; the kid you were out having fun with in college has matured in a lot of ways, but the easygoing charisma is gone. Angelakos’ personal story fills in the blanks behind those changes: he’s coming to grips with a debilitative mental condition and, with that as a constant influence, trying to make a different kind of music than he was a few years ago. The biggest question here is one of perception; how much does the personal journey he’s taken affect how we should view the end piece of work?

With its lead single and album opener Gossamer puts its best foot forward and bites the bullet: “Take A Walk,” like the rest of the record, lacks the blissful immediacy of any of Manners’ true attention-grabbers. Don’t come into this record looking for the next “Sleepyhead” or “Little Secrets” because it’s not here. The sugary electronic rush that is still the band’s sonic calling card isn’t gone completely – this is still instantly recognizable as Passion Pit. The sound is distilled, though, and “Take A Walk” stands as a convincing example that the adaptation from overpoweringly catchy may be a step in the right direction.

Angelakos wrote verses telling a familial-rooted story of a desperate immigrant unsuccessfully trying his hand at the American Dream and placed them in a song best described as persistent. Every part of the whole is repeated and built upon and repeated again, from the twisting, punchy synth ostinato to the insistently repetitive refrain and driving march of a rhythm. It’s a song that practically forces you to like it, and it’s unlikely you’ll hear another track this year that works harder to that end.

Any overall marked sonic departure from Manners-esque frenzy is undercut most by “I’ll Be Alright.” It’s the track here that comes closest to replicating the formula for intricately anthemic pop cuts exemplified on the band’s debut, bursting at the seams with squirming synths, disjointed percussion salvoes and pitched up vocal samples flitting in and out of the picture. However, the easily recognizable similarities to that style seem to exist solely to highlight the differences even more starkly. Angelakos has ditched the falsetto, and with it the unabashedly twee sentiments captured by the most rousing moments in his older material. Instead, the content is downright dark – “I’m so self loathing that it’s hard for me to see/Reality from what I dream, and no one believes me” – an accentuated contrast with the tone of the instrumentals.

This dichotomy, the intersection of electronic-drenched pop immediacy with subversively grim subject matter, is at the crux of Gossamer. It’s a delicate line being walked, but an ambitious and personal one as well, considering the fact that we now know that the lead singer battles with bipolar disorder. It’s disappointing then, when a simple inconsistency in quality of songs emerges; all are creatively arranged and artistically diverse and attempt to bridge the gap between anxious, tortured writing and impressively strong pop tendencies, but ultimately only a handful land with lasting effects. Part of the problem lies in the fascinating approach – the heady mix of light and dark that is so individualistically ambitious is still a conflicting combination. Unless the balance is just right, both sides run the risk of weakening the other.

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The lifting of the veil into Angelakos lends a remarkable amount of pathos to the album, which serves as a buffer against that inconsistency. If you, like so many others, felt a connection with his story, the weaknesses color the album more than hurt it. The imperfections are still there, though. Gossamer isn’t a breezy piece of infectious, euphoric pop, or a stunning piece of confessional intimacy. At its best it is both and at its worst it’s neither. The background to the album is what helps connect the dots between the peaks and valleys.

Back in 2009, Passion Pit seemed like a really good band for parties and commercials, with the occasional effectively energetic love song in the mix as well but not much else. With Gossamer, the conversation has changed. It’s an impressive adjustment to a singular aesthetic that’s worth the listens and discussions while easily maintaining their status as a viable crossover group. It’s got personality, intricacy and energy alongside alienation, self-destruction and confessions. The record is all over the place, but it’s not a misstep. More like a shifting of the gears.