The Week In Pop: Bleachers, The Solo Project Of Fun.’s Jack Antonoff, Is Really Good
Things we learned about Jack Antonoff — Fun. guitarist, former Steel Train ringleader, Lena Dunham boyfriend, and, lately, Bleachers mastermind — in Vulture’s great profile last week: He lived with his parents in New Jersey until age 28, when Fun.’s “We Are Young” made them superstars. His Fun. bandmates lived there for a while too, and they recorded much of their debut album in the living room. He’s happy to fly his loved ones first class, but he still expects his parents to pay for everything from lunch to dental work. He is building a lucrative side career as a pop songwriter for Sara Bareilles (“Brave”) and Taylor Swift (“Sweeter Than Fiction”) and is good buddies with Swift. He had a Star Wars-themed Bar Mitzvah. He dated Scarlett Johansson back in her Ghost World days. He was booking DIY tours for his first band while still in high school and once decided to steal/borrow the family van and drive to Disney World. His sister died of brain cancer at age 13, when he was a senior in high school, just before 9/11, and he was bedridden for months with pneumonia during the recording of Fun.’s breakout Some Nights. As such, he is a major germaphobe. He’s putting off looking for a new therapist because the prospect of catching somebody up feels daunting.
Still, Antonoff is a man in search of healing; his best song says so right there in the title. “I Wanna Get Better” is a retro-futuristic new wave anthem for the present. The centerpiece and self-described “mission statement” of Strange Desire, Antonoff’s debut album as Bleachers, it is a song about “chas(ing) that feeling of an 18-year-old who didn’t know what loss was.” (I originally thought Antonoff was singing about “the feeling of an 18-year-old who didn’t know what Lost was,” which would communicate similar ideas about more innocent times, but like Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, I digress.) The song starts out big and only gets bigger, piling up frantic keyboards, clobbering percussion, quirky noises that sound like a string of emojis, a massive gang of shouters, and quivering yet commanding not-gonna-crack/whoops-already-cracked lead vocals. It’s a tour de force, and it perfectly encapsulates the headspace of a living millennials thinkpiece like Antonoff. Like many in his generation, his life seems both deeply privileged and unimaginably painful, and “I Wanna Get Better” is the sound of the psychic whiplash.
Antonoff finds himself at a unique position in pop culture. His main project has become one of the most massively popular yet patently uncool bands in the world. (I should note that I loved Some Nights unreservedly, so don’t read “uncool” as a rejection of Fun.) Meanwhile he’s dating Dunham — her generation’s handiest avatar for young, hip, urbanites — and together they’re this idyllic Brooklyn power couple. There are lots of musicians whose reach extends into the mainstream and the underground (substitute the suburbs/the city or the radio/the internet if you like), but few of them extend quite as far as Antonoff right now. He’s used that reach to make a record that just about everybody in his constituency could love.
Strange Desire is every bit as epic as Some Nights but not nearly as chipper. Antonoff told Vulture that Bleachers is an ’80s nostalgia passion project in that ever-popular John Hughes mold, “tied to a time when big songs were great songs.” The name Bleachers, though, is designed to represent the “disconnected, darker side” of suburban youth — and indeed, Strange Desire trades the classic-rock-meets-emo-meets-hip-hop luminosity of Some Nights for slightly more ominous synth-pop and new wave. The songs here are more or less equally personal, but contentment and love are in the picture for Antonoff rather than the lonely wandering that characterized Some Nights‘s lyrics. Crucially, this is an album about pressing on together rather than soldiering on alone, about having somebody else around to help lick your wounds. “Everything has changed, and now it’s only you that matters,” Antonoff sings on opener “Wild Heart”; “Can’t believe I captured your heart,” he coos on the ballad “Wake Me”; “Oh, I will bleed when you want me to bleed/ But I don’t really know too much of anything,” he intones on closer “Who I Want You To Love.” Most strikingly, Bleachers swaps out the boyish nasal bleat of Nate Ruess for Antonoff’s deeper, more adult cries and bellows. Still, massive choruses abound, and the same sense of hope and forward motion that propels Fun.’s records undergirds this music too. It is a more shadowy manifestation of the same essentially bright outlook.
The resulting record is both bewildered and triumphant. The monster jams pile up one after another — “Rollercoaster,” “Shadow,” “Reckless Love,” “You’re Still A Mystery,” and on and on — marked alternately by humongous populist choruses and subtly quirky cameos by the likes of Grimes, Dunham, and Yoko Ono. The turns of phrase are evocative, but so are the wordless choruses that spiral out into the rafters. Like most of the musical throwbacks produced by Antonoff’s generation, Strange Desire projects the past through an intensely personal lens, but unlike so many of those nostalgia exercises, his songs gaze outwards toward the listener as often as they peer into Antonoff’s own soul. The personality in his music makes it identifiable rather than inscrutable. To borrow a phrase from someone close to Antonoff’s heart, he may be the voice of his generation — or at least a voice, of a generation.
Strange Desire is out 7/15 via. Pre-order it here.
105,000 copies is not the strongest debut week of the year, but in a down week it was good enough to earn Trey Songz his second #1 album with Trigga. (His 2012 set Chapter V also started out on top.) Its singles include “Na Na,” a DJ Mustard production that interpolates the Fugees, and “Smart Phones,” which includes the line “Smart phones/ Dumb shit” and which grew on me a lot when I heard it on the radio instead of its overlong video. Ed Sheeran’s x bumps down to #2 with 53,000, followed by Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour at #3 with 45,000. Also debuting high are modern rockers Seether, whose Isolate And Medicate enters at #4 with just above 37,000. The Frozen soundtrack is at #5 with 37,000 — its 28th straight week in the top 5 and 30th straight in the top 10, as Billboard notes.
Reggae-rockers MAGIC! rode the success of #2 single “Rude” to debut their LP Don’t Kill The Magic at #6 with about 36,000. Two more former chart-toppers are next: Miranda Lambert’s Platinum (#7, 25,000) and Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence (#8, just under 25,000). Despite Robin Thicke’s much-publicized Paula sales flameout (the album only sold 530 copies in the UK), 550 in Thicke’s native Canada, and “less than 54″ in Australia) its 24,000 in US sales were good enough for a #9 debut stateside. Rounding out the top 10 is another debut, Thanks For Listening by aptly named country singer Colt Ford, which sold 23,000.
Over on the Hot 100, Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX still reign. “Fancy” is #1 for a seventh straight week. Billboard points out that this feat ties Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” as the fifth-longest stint at #1 by a lead female artist this decade. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” Feat. Calvin Harris owns the longest streak at 10 weeks, while three songs (Lorde’s “Royals,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” and Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK”) enjoyed 9-week runs at #1. The rest of the top 6 is also unchanged: MAGIC!’s “Rude” is #2 for a second straight week and might be able to ascend to #1 next week, which is crazy. Ariana Grande and Azalea’s shoulda-been-#1 “Problem” remains at #3 after peaking at #2. Then come Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” at #4, Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” at #5, and Jason Derulo & Snoop Dogg’s “Wiggle” at #6. Calvin Harris is up to #7 with “Summer,” while John Legend’s former #1 “All Of Me” is down to #8. Maroon 5’s “Maps” moves up to #9, becoming the group’s ninth top-10 single. At #10 is DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What,” which is unfortunately turning down after all.
It’s worth noting occasionally that the Hot 100 is culled together from Billboard‘s sales, streaming, and radio charts, and that it only represents what’s popular in the US. A quick look at Spotify’s global streaming chart gives a different perspective:
By that metric, “Summer” is the most popular song in the world and your true “song of the summer” (blatant branding objective achieved). Along with the inclusion of Tiesto and David Guetta tracks that haven’t quite become US hits, it reminds me that no matter how big the EDM craze has gotten stateside, these guys are still on a slightly higher level of fame elsewhere than they are here. Also interesting to see Coldplay’s Avicii-produced “A Sky Full Of Stars” so high, which only reinforces my sense that EDM rules the world more than we realize.
Fifth Harmony – “BO$$”
Best song of the week by a wide, wide margin, carried by brilliant meme-worthy lyrics and a strong, satisfying Destiny’s Child influence. Conceptually, “BO$$” is a pastiche of “Independent Women” + “Bills, Bills, Bills” + “Jumpin’ Jumpin'” + maybe a little “Soldier,” the ladies of Fifth Harmony bragging about their financial swagger and boasting that they need a man who can keep up with them. Having recognized its clear lineage, though, let’s get this straight: This song is incredibly now. The beat is a genius convergence of 2014 pop trends, matching spare West Coast hiccups and snaps with a sassy brass part that essentially grabs you and pulls you on the dance floor. And the lyrics! The opening lines: “Every day is payday/ Swipe my card and I do the Nae Nae/ You’re talkin’ to a lady/ I want a Kanye-ye, not a Ray J.” And the chorus comes close to Riff Raff & Lil Debbie where repping our first lady is concerned: “Michele Obama! Purse so heavy, gettin’ Oprah dollars!”
Young The Giant – “Mind Over Matter”
“Mind Over Matter” has been ruling alternative radio for a minute now, but the video is out this week, so that’s an excuse to mention Young The Giant. These guys are one of the most enjoyable, least offensive entrants among the world’s many top-40 pop bands disguised as indie rock bands. I certainly wouldn’t be mad if they crossed over with this. It would be funny if the chorus said “‘Cause I’m a young man built to fuck!” but I’m pretty sure he’s saying “fall.”
Wale – “The Followers”
M-m-m-m-m-m-m-maybach Music lieutenants Wale and Meek Mill seemed primed for a beef this week when Meek called out Wale for being unsupportive on Twitter. Then Wale squashed that with a thoughtful response and quickly issued this promising track, a return to the reflective sounds of his Seinfeld-themed 2008 breakout The Mixtape About Nothing and the best thing he’s done since then. It quickly went to #1 on Billboard’s Twitter chart, the Trending 140, and although I’m no longer accustomed to saying nice things about Wale songs, it’s hard to be mad about the guy grabbing some attention by going back to his roots.
MoXiiE – “Anyway”
MoXiiE was born and raised in Haiti, resides in Brooklyn, and brings you this masterful modem-pop single via the UK site Popjustice. Pan-global future music!
Paris Hilton – “Come Alive”
Regardless of who was responsible for its excellence, “Stars Are Blind” was a shockingly excellent pop single. This latest Paris Hilton single, which skews toward EDM because of course it does, is not so excellent. The beat feels warmed-over, and the lyrics are vaguely pathetic: “I could be your dreamgirl/ I’ll be your princess, whatever you choose/ I’ll travel the world just to be with you.” Unfortunately, this is a lot more like what we all expected from a Paris Hilton pop single.
B.o.B. – “Drunk AF” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
B.o.B. has been releasing a ton of videos from his new No Genre 2 this week, and this Ty$-assisted party track is the only one I’ve liked — much better than the one that interpolates “Many Rivers To Cross” and Bobby’s sad attempt at the Migos flow.
Juicy J – “0 To 100 (Remix)”
Juicy has also been real busy putting new songs on SoundCloud, and it should be no surprise that his greatest accomplishment of the week involves borrowing Boi-1da’s great “0 To 100/The Catch Up” beat.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Garth Brooks is coming out of retirement and wants to reclaim country’s crown. [Billboard]
- Brooks is also taking his catalog digital, but independently through his website and for “a stupid price.” [Billboard]
- Kesha wrote an essay about her rehab experience for Elle UK. [ATRL]
- Jhene Aiko’s debut album Souled Out now has an 8/25 release date, which puts her in direct competition with Ariana Grande, which seems unwise. [Rap Up]
- Producer William Orbit defended that rough Britney Spears warmup vocal that made the rounds yesterday. [Vulture]
- Kiesza accomplished what Grimes could not: She got Rihanna to record songs she wrote. [Digital Spy]
- Here’s an interesting anecdote about how that Balkan Beat Box sax sample ended up on Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty.” [Rolling Stone]
- Miley Cyrus is rumored to be dating Mike Will Made It, which would be great if it means she’s definitely not dating Wayne Coyne. [Us]
- UK hitmaker and Sam Smith collaborator Naughty Boy is expected to produce the next album by fellow Smith collaborator Mary J. Blige. [Hits Daily Double]
- Joining Adriana Grande as a VMAs performer will be 5 Seconds Of Summer. [Twitter]
- And Usher will open the VMAs. [Rap Up]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME