In Brief: Gossamer may come across as annoying and overbearing to your average listener. But it’s intriguing for those who love the “wall-of-sound” and love to dig for meaning beneath it.
It really bugs me when people talk about electronic music as if one of its great failings is that it doesn’t convey human emotion very well. While it’s certainly true that it’s easy to set a drum loop and a superficially catchy synth melody on infinite repeat and serve up high-energy dance tracks meant for nothing other than mindless motion or low-energy ambient music meant for nothing other than detached navel-gazing, these things are tools that can be just as useful as their “real”, acoustic counterparts if used properly. Passion Pit is the kind of band that knows a thing or two about this. Though they function as a five-piece band, the vast majority of their music finds its origins in the tinkerings of one man, Michael Angelakos, on his laptop. And while this could easily be a recipe for the rest of the band to function merely as session players and go on auto-pilot, instead Passion Pit is one of those groups that tends to layer the rhythmic, synthetic, and bizarrely cutesy sounds that they’re so fond of so thickly that a first time listener may be compelled to recoil from the sheer excess of emotion. Most of their songs seem to be an exercise in intentional dissonance – angsty, sad sack lyrics ironically clashing with up-tempo, candy-colored synthpop music. It’s certainly a recipe that will turn off anyone who prefers a “rawer” approach to making music, and even to someone like me who appreciates the intersection of rock music and computers, it was all a bit too much to take in at the beginning. But the more I’ve listened to their sophomore album, Gossamer, the more I’ve found its shimmery take on emotionally heavy subject matter to work as sort of a brave statement against those negative emotions. These guys can acknowledge those feelings, even in bleedingly honest terms, but at the end of the day, they know they’re going to scare off those inner demons with the most fantastic-sounding racket that they know how to make.
Now I’m not going to lie – Gossamer has some flaws working against it that, despite all of the exuberant catchiness it’s got going for it, could be a significant barrier to new listeners. For one thing, it’s so overwhelmingly up-tempo that it’s difficult to tell a lot of the songs apart at first. A slew of hits or potential hits early in the album certainly help with this, but the very first track has a distinctive romp to it that isn’t echoed in many of the more straightforward dance and pop rhythms that follow. Four tracks in, there’s an incredibly distinctive ballad – which turns out to be one of the album’s sunniest moments despite its relaxed tempo – but it sort of sets up expectations of diversity that the band doesn’t really deliver on again until the very end of the album. So there’s this huge chunk from the middle third of the album up until almost the end where, even though there are a lot of interesting sentiments and musical bits to mine from each of the songs as you listen to them more closely, it all seems quite impenetrable at first. Adding to the difficulty of telling things apart is the rather excessive use of sampling, particularly in the vocal department. Angelakos is the only member of the band credited with any vocal work – lead or background – and he’s got a bit of a high-pitched voice to begin with. But then throw in a bunch of exuberant background vocals and samples that make you wonder if they brought in an entire crowd of little girls to sing along on the album, and you can see why you might get funny looks if you had some of your male buddies in the car with you (and for those who still use physical CDs in this day and age, the bright pink cover image probably wouldn’t help as you tried to explain that this is legitimate grown-up music made by a group of five men). Comparisons to The Polyphonic Spree wouldn’t be entirely out of place here, though with fewer people all railing on their instruments at once and more wires connecting various pieces of technology (and likely posing as a fire hazard during their live shows). I’m a huge fan of MuteMath and Paper Route, groups which I could easily compare Passion Pit to in the high-energy electronic tinkering department, but I realize that to some folks, those groups already sound a bit manic. So Gossamer is probably going to play best to a crowd who isn’t put off or embarrassed by the silly excess of it all.
1. Take a Walk
While many Passion Pit songs describe tragic events or emotions, this one is an unusual start for the album in the sense that it’s got a far more specific narrative than most of their material. The band wallops you over the head right way with a stomping, “follow the bouncing ball” sort of rhythm (which makes sense if you’ve seen the video) and a zig-zagging synth riff, the sort of thing that’s immediately entertaining and memorable, but that isn’t done for the sake of hiding bad lyrics. They’ve actually done a good job of making sure the lyrics stand out as much as the music here, which is important since the narrative about an immigrant man struggling to support his family is a compelling one. Angelakos seems to be channeling another character’s thoughts – perhaps a family member a few generations back – and he does it with much more flair for detail than he exhibits elsewhere, noting the sacrifices that the man made in order to save up in the hopes of retrieving the wife and kids who couldn’t make the original trip across the Atlantic with him, and also the bad business decisions that lost him the cash and the weight of stress that he feels knowing that these folks depend on him. His response when the tension gets too great, rather than to freak out in front of the people who rely on him, is to go outside and walk it off – this allows the punchy chorus with its repetitive background vocals chirping “Take a walk, take a walk, ooohhhhhhh!” to serve as a break from the dense verses for the listener. The “wham line” comes up at the end of the bridge, distilling generations’ worth of pride and protective instinct and maybe the side effects of being taught to “act like a man” into a single phrase: “I’m just too much a coward to admit when I’m in need.”
2. I’ll Be Alright
One of the most downer lyrics on the album is extremely easy to miss in this hurried jumble of a song that is more of a blast to listen to than it should have any right to be. Between the manic drum fills and the pitch-shifted vocal samples that sound like a cartoon character getting pummeled by the track’s machine-gun rhythm track, the entire band’s going full throttle and throwing the exact opposite of a pity party. So it’s easy to completely miss the sad sack admissions being sung, as a man sinks deeper into depression and alcoholism and tells the woman who loves him that she’d be better off getting away from him while the getting is good. In way, there’s an admirable altruism behind it – he figures happiness is a lost cause for him but he doesn’t want her to settle for being dragged down by it for the rest of her life when she might still have a shot at a good life with someone else. In another way, it’s unflinchingly pathetic. There’s so much synthetic fairy dust sprinkled on this one that I can’t help but be amused by the deliberate contrast, plus on a superficial level it’s just fun listening to the band rip through it as if they were running some sort of musical obstacle course.
3. Carried Away
More candy-coated synths meet up with a glammy disco beat here, the sort of thing that’s so typical of the wink-and-nudge nostalgia prevalent in indie pop these days that I think it’s ceased to be ironic. Not that understanding this makes the song any less fun. It actually makes the teasing, sing-song lyric go down that much easier. What sounds like it could be the sort of giddy love song that would light up every party it’s played at is instead a half-bitter half-apologetic rant about a man’s inability to even acknowledge a friendship with a woman. That’s what I take away from it, at least. At first I was kind of turned off because I thought the song was asking someone to keep personal and emotional involvement out of a sexual relationship. But looking closer at the lyrics, I’m not sure any of this is sexual at all. It sounds like he’s behaved in such a contradictory manner towards whoever this person is that it’s kept them at a distance. A song about lust getting the better of a man would likely say something like, “I get carried away by you” or “I get carried away with you”, but in this song, it’s “I get carried away from you.” Apparently she just shorts out his wires to the point where he either says totally stupid things to her or just avoids her altogether. It’s sort of funny and sort of sad at the same time. I won’t pretend this is the world’s deepest song – the bridge in particular seems to go for the low-hanging fruit when it draws the Captain Obvious conclusion that “We’re all having problems and we’ve all got something to say.” But since most of the lyrics are intriguing rather than painfully obvious, and the song functions as a sort of subversion of the happy-go-lucky dance tracks it draws inspiration from, it still puts a huge grin on my face.
4. Constant Conversations
The one true change of pace on the album is this sunny, easygoing ballad, a refreshing throwback to the R&B sounds of the 90s, which I’m sure were taking their own melodic cues from decades past, just with then-current programming and keyboard technology. I like how Passion Pit mashes up these sorts of old-school sounds with their “DIY on a laptop” aesthetic, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more stuff like this from them in the future. The rhythm here is startlingly minimal, scaling back the programmed drums considerably and opting for a relaxed, handclap-driven groove, accented by a sampled little girl’s voice whose plea of “I hope that you never leave” gets chopped up and rearranged the way a DJ might. Angelakos has the sort of falsetto delivery that really makes a song like this sizzle – even some critics are aren’t really down with the high-pitched, overdriven sound Passion Pit usually goes for have given this track some well-deserved kudos. Here a confrontation between a (presumably drunk) man and his (presumably fed up) woman as they try to negotiate the terms of their relationship over the din of the noisy streets below. Filtering out all of that noise – which I guess serves as a bit of a metaphor for the voices of other people telling them how they should handle the situation – seems to be the hard part. At times Angelakos seems tender in his efforts to summarize their differences and try to soothe frayed nerves; at others he is forceful and even mildly vulgar: “Well then they’ll say what they say/And they’ll do what they do/But it doesn’t mean a g*dd*mn thing”. Admittedly that one line, which pops up every time the chorus comes around, throws me for a bit of a loop. This album’s all about the dissonance between music and lyrics, so I can’t exactly say it was a bad artistic move to throw that in there, but sorry, G.D. is one of the few swears these days that still manages to rub me the wrong way. If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, then you’ll probably love the song – I do still like it quite a bit despite that.
5. Mirrored Sea
Back to the frenzied, but highly danceable grind! The fast rush of cymbals leading into a relentless beat nicely compliments a soaring melody that pretty much immediately catches my ear. It’s hard to describe, because it’s not as bouncy of a tune as we’ve heard on the album thus far – it’s got more of a melancholy quality with lots of dramatic, sustained notes. The synth riff follows the chorus melody, so it’s quite easy to get the whole thing lodged in your head. Lyrically, it seems to be one of the more vague songs on the album, possibly referencing a man’s further descent into the bottle as he tries to cope with his problems, but it’s the personification of a man’s inner demons as a vast, daunting ocean that really grabs me: “Oh, you mirrored sea/Your waves, they’re haunting me/They’re all I see.” There’s a beautiful breakdown and buildup in the bridge section, revolving around a digitized sample repeating the words “Everyone’s alone” over and over – exactly the kind of thing that a dance track would use to still the crowd for a breather and then gradually bring the energy level back up for one final freakout… I love how Passion Pit takes these qualities of a type of music that generally only serves as the backdrop for superficial activities, and stuffs it to the brim with all of these heavy emotions. This one emerged pretty quickly as my favorite track on the entire album.
6. Cry Like a Ghost
The rhythm of this song takes on more of an urabn character – we’re still in a heavily computerized landscape, but the beat is more relaxed, and there’s this fuzzy, synthetic bass dripping all over everything. Sort of like a video game approximation of an old hip-hop tune, I guess, except that Angelakos is singing to it, not speaking. A woman is mentioned by name for the first time on an album that leaves most of its characters generic and nameless – the name “Sylvia” is glaring at the beginning of each chorus, as if we needed a way to differentiate that someone our protagonist met at rock bottom is a different woman than the one who kicked his drunken butt to the curb. Depending on how you interpret the lyrics, this could be one of the album’s darker songs – there may be something admirable about how Sylvia seems to take this guy’s crap and not pressure him to change, but at the same time he notes that “No one’s gonna tell you when enough’s enough”, and the final verse does seem to allude to them coming to blows due to how out of control he’s gotten. I’m still not entirely sure how to read this one – perhaps he finally crossed some sort of ethical boundary that he never thought he would, and his own disgust over it pulled him back from the brink. But it seems like this character is only here for a brief interlude – she’s understandably out of the picture by the next song, and he’s moved on to someone else. There’s a sad interlude that sounds like either a music box or wind chimes at the end of this one – a reflective moment that would signal “end of side one” if albums were still broken up into front and hack halves like they were in the cassette days.
7. On My Way
For once, a cheery melody actually matches the mood of a song. Funnily enough, I was so used to the deliberate opposition of these elements that I hadn’t noticed the band taking a break from it at first. (In my defense, a lot of the songs in the back half are a bit difficult to tell apart, sonically speaking.) Here, our main character is head over heels for some new girl named Kristina. He’s still broken, and probably still hitting the bottle one too many times a day, but one gets the sense that this relationship is on more equal footing, that she gets his brokenness and has her own mess that he’s helping her deal with. So the two pick each other up and dust each other off, and he’s so grateful for this and enamored with her in general, that he proposes running away and getting married. As a chorus of cutesy voices chimes in and the chorus comes soaring up into the clear blue sky, I’m compelled to root for this guy at last, especially when he drops what might be my favorite line on the album: “We’ll consecrate this messy love.” There’s just something so sweetly naive about it, as if they’ve stumbled across a truth that it takes a lot of people several years of marriage (or multiple marriages) to learn, but they don’t fully understand the ramifications of it yet.
For a while, I was trying to figure out why my attention wandered during the latter half of the album. I think this song is mostly to blame, because it doesn’t do as much to distinguish itself from the others and its lyrics, while on the more hopeful side, are very generic. The intro certainly distinguishes itself, manipulating the synths and vocal samples to sound as if they’re coming in through a radio station that you’re not quite zeroed in on, and thus getting a lot of static and interference. Cool idea, but it goes on for a bit too long. Then the pounding piano and eventually the relentless drums come pouring in… and while I love the track’s upbeat energy, it seems to be one of those that tries to drive home its melody by way of pure brute force rather than the smart balance of force and finesse that’s worked so well elsewhere. The song certainly feels good, as it beckons a lover to come away on some sort of intimate retreat, celebrating their ability to be completely open and honest with each other, and to find strength in that vulnerability. This deserves to be explored much more poetically than with a chorus that clumsily rhymes “away” with “stay” and “okay”. I almost wish that modern rock music would just get rid of the word “away” for a while. We’ve already got two “way” songs in a row here, plus “Carried Away” earlier (which perhaps worked better for not making “away” the focus of a rhyme scheme). Throwing that word into three song titles is just asking for at least one of them to come out as a blue of nondescript lyrical greyness. I think for a while I was punishing the songs after this point for the failure of this one to say anything meaningful.
9. Two Veils to Hide My Face
A short poem, delivered by chirpy acapella voices, comes up next. Just four lines delivered in twenty seconds or so, and that’s it. It’s an interesting break from the norm, but it’s so out of left field, without any musical or thematic connections to the surrounding songs that I can see, that it just feels like a “throw it in” sort of moment. This could have been an effective device for starting or closing different “chapters” of the album if there were two or three tracks like this. Instead, this track is a bit of a misfit – not long enough to be annoyingly out of place, but not enough to really grab my attention, either.
10. Love Is Greed
The beginning of this song is almost too cutesy to handle. It sounds like the sound a wind-up toy car would make if it was covered in roses and princess glitter. Fortunately that doesn’t reflect poorly on the song itself – at this point, I’ve gotten the hang of the spastic high-pitched vocals and rubbery rhythms that make Passion Pit’s engine go. This song serves as a bit of a late-album epiphany, bouncing back from the mediocre “Hideaway” with some really strong writing, as Angelakos comes to the realization that a lot of the relationships where we claim to feel love, are really just us getting high on infatuation and looking to get our own needs met. This isn’t so much a condemnation, as just an acknowledgment that it is what it is, and that relationships can often be imbalanced because one person is so busy feeding the other one’s needs that they neglect their own until they suddenly wake up and realize they’re unhappy. It’s not a particularly cheerful revelation for a person to have, but it arguably puts you in a better place the next time you step up to play relationship roulette.
11. It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy
What seems like a confident anthem on the surface, with a driving rhythm designed to bring audiences out of their chairs to clap along to the beat, turns out to be quite bizarre when examined more closely. If happiness is found in this song, it’s found way out there, teetering on the edge of mortality itself, as a man beaten within an inch of his life and left for dead reflects on the unfairness and absurdity of the situation and decides… well, actually I’m not quite sure what he’s so resolute about. Maybe the harrowing experience convinced him to stop wasting his life in a drunken haze? I don’t write ’em; I just try my best to get into the headspace that the writer was in at the time. Regardless, it’s fun to chant along with his tirade in the chorus: “It’s not right, it’s not right/How’m I the only one who sees a fight?/What are we? Who are they?/Who says those b*st*rds don’t deserve to pay?” I guess if you’re feeling beat down and robbed blind by life in general, this is one of those songs that might server as a reminder that no one else can steal your joy, your faith, whatever inner light it is that keeps you going.
12. Where We Belong
While not as big a change of pace as “Constant Conversations”, the band does manage to switch up their approach for the finale, stripping back a lot of the live elements and starting the song with sparse, cold, electronic rhythms, a mood much more suited for Radiohead than Passion Pit. As the song progresses, it’s pretty clear that they’re not going for highly experimental and subversive indie-tronica, but it is a different tactic for this band to let the layers build more gradually and give one vocalist and his laptop the same sort of spotlight that a guitar-oriented band might do with their frontman on an acoustic. In some ways, it reminds me of something As Tall as Lions might have done. Angelakos pulls off one of his best vocal performances here, his soulful cries stretching toward the ceiling as his unfortunate character lies there cold and alone in a bathtub, life slowly seeping away, yet somehow at peace about the whole thing. It’s a sadly beautiful way to end the album, but the band makes sure to bring it to a group vocal crescendo that seems like it might have once been part of a more up-tempo song, but that they slide into so effortlessly here that it tips the bittersweet ending toward the “sweet” side of things. “It’s hard to keep on living when your heart beats by a billion pounds”, he sings exuberantly with his last breath. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be happy and make you proud.” And so Gossamer ends, in a flurry of glowing, golden synths, finally at peace with itself.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Take a Walk $2
I’ll Be Alright $1.75
Carried Away $1.75
Constant Conversations $1.25
Mirrored Sea $2
Cry Like a Ghost $1
On My Way $1.25
Two Veils to Hide My Face $0
Love Is Greed $1.25
It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy $1.25
Where We Belong $1.50
Michael Angelakos: Lead vocals, keyboards
Ian Hultquist: Keyboards, guitars
Xander Singh: Synths, samples
Jeff Apruzzese: Bass, synth bass
Nate Donmoyer: Drums
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Originally published on Epinions.com.