The Jack Antonoff Conundrum

Carlotta Kohl

The Jack Antonoff Conundrum

Carlotta Kohl

Jack Antonoff will never let you forget he’s from New Jersey, so it feels appropriate to lead with Charly Bliss guitarist Spencer Fox’s impression of fictional Jersey icon Tony Soprano telling his nephew Christopher Moltisanti why Antonoff is a good producer. “Good music production is not about the producer. It’s about the artist,” fake Tony explains. “You got these big fuckin’ hotshots, Chainsmokers comin’ in, they come in, they make it all about themselves! It’s not about that. Jack Antonoff, he understands. Makes Taylor Swift sound more like Taylor Swift. He makes Lana Del Rey sound more like Lana Del Rey.”

This becomes truer by the year. Antonoff’s production work used to incorporate a lot of the loud, blocky ’80s signifiers that typify his own music as Bleachers: massive gang vocals, monolithic synths, gargantuan gated drums, the full Breakfast Club treatment. Taylor Swift’s “Out Of The Woods,” arguably his big breakthrough as a mainstream pop producer, is archetypal Antonoff. But more and more often, that kind of bombast has been absent from his team-ups with an ever-growing list of modern pop stars, most of them women, many of them just slightly to the left of the mainstream. If you pay attention to the intersection of indie and pop, you can probably recite his client list by heart: Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lana Del Rey, the Chicks, Kevin Abstract, most recently Clairo.

Skeptics argue that Antonoff has homogenized these artists, ironing out their quirks while serving up basic templates for sparkling top-of-your-lungs stadium pop and mirage-like balladry. This critique is not entirely without merit — the man does not throw a lot of curveballs — but if anything, the range of Antonoff’s recent work suggests he’s an extremely malleable collaborator. When he first emerged as a music industry power player, I would have never pegged him as a guy who could craft hyperactive art-rap with Kevin Abstract, glammy ’70s filth with Annie Clark, or lush Joni Mitchell throwbacks with Clairo. If his collected works have erred on the sleepy side lately, it may have less to do with Antonoff’s lack of ideas than with artists catering to zoned-out streaming-era aesthetics and a general shift away from his strengths. If anything, he could stand to put a bit more of his own imprint on the artists he works with — remember the jolt he supplied Lorde on “Green Light”?

Writing about his budding dominance four years ago upon the release of Lorde and Bleachers’ sophomore albums Melodrama and Gone Now, I speculated that one way to stake out his online-M.O.R. territory would be “trading his sledgehammer for a pickax.” For better or worse, this is essentially what has played out. As Jason Lipshutz put it in a Billboard cover story last week, Antonoff is now “known less for a signature sound than for his intensely collaborative nature.” The artists interviewed for the feature repeatedly praised his enthusiasm in the studio and his willingness to let them take their music where they wanted. In keeping with trends and creative whims, that has largely meant a shift from brash dance-inflected pop to a softer, dreamier, folksier palette, from Reputation and Masseduction to folklore and Sling and Norman Fucking Rockwell!

That same shift is evident in Antonoff’s own music. He returns this week with Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night, his third Bleachers LP and first in four years. Mostly co-produced by Antonoff and Patrik Berger, best known for his work with Robyn and Charli XCX, the album works in contributions from many longtime Antonoff associates and a few new friends. Annie Clark co-produced opener “91,” cowritten with author Zadie Smith, who sings backup on the song over violin and synth work by Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds. Clark also lends BGVs to “Stop Making This Hurt,” which has programming by Kendrick Lamar affiliate Sounwave, who joined Antonoff in the side project Red Hearse. Besides her vocal turn on “Secret Life,” Lana Del Rey co-wrote, co-produced, and sings on “Don’t Go Dark,” a song that also counts the Chicks and Aaron Dessner (with whom Antonoff won an Album Of The Year trophy for their work on Swift’s folklore this year) in the credits. Most momentously, Antonoff’s lifelong inspiration Bruce Springsteen lends his voice and his gravitas to “Chinatown,” implicitly offering his endorsement to the Bleachers operation.

All-star supporting cast aside, Saturday Night is unmistakably a Jack Antonoff joint, from that blunt baritone bellow to those Reagan-era stylistic fixations to the lyrics’ big-hearted optimism in the face of struggle. But it also exists in conversation with a current pop landscape marked by stylish minimalism and bedroom-pop intimacy, informed by transformative figures like Billie Eilish and Phoebe Bridgers. (Don’t be surprised if Antonoff is angling to work with both of those LA natives, despite each one sticking with an insular, homegrown writing and production team up until now.) Much of Antonoff’s recent production work has existed in this smaller, quieter realm — the ghostly fantasias of LDR’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club, the whispery folk-pop panoramas of Clairo’s Sling, the barely-there advance singles from Lorde’s Solar Power — and the results have not always been as memorable as his boldfaced all-caps endeavors. On his own album, the tension between the current bleary, miniaturized trends and his stadium-sized tendencies makes for a strange and fascinating listen.

When Bleachers debuted with Strange Desire in 2014, Antonoff billed it as an explicitly nostalgic project “tied to a time when big songs were great songs.” Some of that old ’80s hugeness is still present on Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night, most clearly on the album’s euphoric centerpiece “Stop Making This Hurt,” a song that seasons its howl-along directness with an equally contagious rhythmic busyness. On that track, a lament about a protracted breakup delivered with the joy of an epiphany, everything contributes to the twitchy, get-up-out-of-your-chair feeling — the funky guitar stabs, the staccato blurts of brass, even the shimmering oscillation of the keyboard. “Stop making this hurt!” he exclaims. “Say goodbye like you mean it!” It’s one of the best, most ecstatic singles he has ever worked on.

A similar jittery energy courses through the sax-blasted “How Dare You Want More,” a song that imagines how Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk” might have sounded if recorded in their Father Of The Bride era. “Don’t Go Dark” is one of those “Dancing In The Dark”-style runaway trains that have always been central to Antonoff’s ethos. “Chinatown” is as glowing and grandiose a power ballad as you’ll find, the sound of heartland rock swallowed up by shoegaze. Just as often, though, Antonoff and Berger scale back the scope of these songs via lo-fi production, pared-down arrangements, or both. Saturday Night begins with “91,” a string-laden ballad about longing for a home that was never as perfect as he’d like to remember it — a slightly different spin on the impulse that once drove Antonoff to take a replica of his childhood bedroom on tour. “Big Life” could almost be Beach Fossils or Wild Nothing, while “Secret Life” reminds me of Hovvdy’s gauzy balladry; together these songs find him turning from the past toward the future in his search for a safe and stable enclave, imagining what he might build with current flame Carlotta Kohl.

The album ends with a trio of increasingly low-key songs that indicate the post-Blonde mutiny against drums has now extended all the way to Jack Antonoff. In a different era, “45,” a tribute to the bonds forged over records, might have been a full-blown rocker; here he belts out his lyrics backed by little more than an acoustic guitar and vibes. “Strange Behavior” and “What’d I Do With All Of This Faith?” are even barer, songs that find Antonoff cross-examining the romanticism that has always driven his music. (The Kennedy dynasty factors in — and no, not on the song written by Lana Del Rey.) It’s interesting to hear Antonoff pushing himself in different directions, trying to feel his way to some kind of creative breakthrough. But the further he gets from the thunderous maximalism of “I Wanna Get Better” and “Don’t Take The Money,” the less rewarding his music becomes.

No matter how chameleonic and nuanced Antonoff may be in the producer’s chair, Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night is further evidence of his strengths and limitations. When he’s not serving as a sounding board for some of pop’s most visionary artists, what’s left is an earnest millennial from New Jersey who knows how to translate his nostalgic longing into passionate sing-alongs. That’s not such a bad thing to be! In the last few years, Antonoff has evolved into a Rick Rubin-style artist whisperer — a Jack of all trades, if you will. He is willing and able to accompany artists all over the stylistic map. But if he’s going to maintain this privileged stature — and all evidence suggests your favorite pop artist will recruit him sooner or later — I’m more curious to hear what he does when pop’s pendulum swings back toward the humongous and ostentatious. And given that fellow ’80s devotee the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” just became the most successful Hot 100 single of all time, maybe Antonoff doesn’t have to wait for a cultural sea change. Forget Billie Eilish and Phoebe Bridgers — put this man in the studio with Abel Tesfaye and let the neon nostalgia flow.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

CHART WATCH

Pop Smoke’s second posthumous album Faith debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 this week. As Billboard reports, the project tallied 88,000 equivalent album units, and only 4,000 in sales, to become the late rap star’s second chart-topping album. John Mayer’s Sob Rock enters at #2 with 84,000 units; its 61,000 in sales make it easily the bestselling album of the week. Sob Rock is Mayer’s 10th top-10 effort. The rest of the top 10: Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, Morgan Wallen, Lil Baby and Lil Durk, Polo G, Dua Lipa, the prior Pop Smoke LP, and Bo Burnham’s soundtrack album.

BTS replace themselves atop the Hot 100 again this week, with “Butter” returning to #1 for an eighth nonconsecutive frame after being bumped down by “Permission To Dance” last week. Per Billboard, it’s the first time an act has displaced itself at #1 and then sent the prior #1 hit back to the top of the chart the following week. “Permission To Dance” falls to #7 this week. The rest of the top 10 includes Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” at #2, Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” at #3, the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” at #4, Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” at #5, Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” at #6, Lil Nas X’s “Montero” at #8, Rodrigo’s “deja vu” at #9, and the Weeknd and Ariana Grande’s “Save Your Tears” at #10.

POP FIVE

Lil Nas X – “Industry Baby” (Feat. Jack Harlow)
Once again, Lil Nas X proves he’s pretty good at pop music and very good at pop stardom.

Camila Cabello – “Don’t Go Yet”
If the title is a veiled plea not to give up on Camila Cabello after her lackluster sophomore album, well, consider me fully tuned in again after this full-on Cuban immersion.

Lorde – “Stoned At The Nail Salon”
The zzzzzz is strong with this one. Solar Power is officially a liability.

The Kid LAROI – “Not Sober” (Feat. Polo G & Stunna Gambino)
The song is super catchy, but even with Polo G standing proudly alongside him, I just cannot take the Kid Laroi seriously.

Khalid – “New Normal”
The song didn’t make an impression on me, but the product placement made me laugh out loud.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Camila Cabello shared a Notes App response to people who claimed her new Fallon performance featured a dancer in blackface: “[it’s] supposed to be a white man with a terrible spray tan.” [Twitter]
  • A clip of new NIN-produced music can be heard in Halsey’s LXXXXP online game. [Twitter]
  • Lady Gaga’s Chromatica remix album will feature Grimes. [That Grape Juice]
  • Ed Sheeran will play a free show in Coventry for HMV’s 100th anniversary. [Twitter]
  • Four more posthumous Pop Smoke songs were released on what would’ve been his 22nd birthday, as part of a Faith deluxe edition. [HipHopDX]
  • Billie Eilish announced Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles, a concert film coming to Disney+ in September. [Instagram]
  • Nick Jonas fractured a rib and bruised his tailbone after crashing a BMX bike while filming NBC’s Olympics Dreams Featuring Jonas Brothers. [USA Today]
  • Luke Combs is covering the funeral costs of three fans who died at Faster Horses Festival as a result of carbon monoxide exposure in their trailer. [Wood TV]
  • To celebrate the one year anniversary of folklore, Taylor Swift released the original version of bonus track “The Lakes.” [YouTube]
  • Jack Harlow gave his Lil Nas X collab “Industry Baby” its live debut at Rolling Loud. [Twitter]
  • Boy band Big Time Rush announced a reunion tour. [USA Today]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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