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Passion Pit, ‘Gossamer’ (Columbia)

SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: July 24, 2012
Label: Columbia

“Take a Walk,” the first track and first single from Passion Pit’s second album, Gossamer, is a grower — a thudding, crawling pop song that seems flatfooted at first, but with a little patience and attention, gradually yields a twisty, poignant wit. Given a lot of attention, though, something ungraspable and flimsy emerges about the narrative, whose most concrete feature is that it appears to keep referring to the economic recession (which is promising, since there’s rarely been a subject so universally important given so little artistic attention), but stops nervously short of actually making sense.

Sure, you can learn from helpful journalists that each verse narrates the American experience of a member of frontman Michael Angelakos’ family, and once you know that, you can squint at the song and see how it works, or at least how it works for its author. But the images that catch the mind — a father watching his kids play board games and hoping they won’t have to worry about money like he does; another figure cursing “these socialists with all their damn taxes” before admitting that he’s “too much a coward” to admit he needs the communal assistance socialism values — don’t track. And without a cheat sheet, you won’t know that they come from different characters. Suddenly, the song seems flatfooted again, and the thud becomes a gangly lurch.

Another of Gossamer‘s press-supplied talking points is that Angelakos suffers from bipolar disorder, and the album is appropriately dichotomous. The music, frantic and maximalist and multi-tracked, stuffed with whistling synths and crunching beats and a long march of swooning, desperate choruses, all sounds written on a high; the lyrics on an obvious low. The phrases that percolate through the glitter can be brutally, miserably honest: The queasy high point of “Cry Like a Ghost” is where Angelakos doesn’t deny “raising his hand” to his girlfriend while pleading helplessly that he “wasn’t even there,” a useless truth. When there’s cheer, Gossamer has the ring of escapist fantasy (on “Hideaway,” for instance, which naturally rhymes with “everything will be okay”). There are arresting statements on at least every other song, lines that truly shake and disturb, but as on “Take a Walk,” too often they’re not so much inscrutable as half-scrutable — “My brain and body took course,” “Your love evolves to ruin” — and their full impact is not quite felt from the outside.

Passion Pit’s tradition is old and fertile; in fact, it’s one of the oldest in popular music: strapping lyrical anchors to the thoughtless balloons of pop melody, to do life’s darknesses the vivid justice they deserve. (Trace a line back through “Somebody I Used to Know,” Modest Mouse, the Magnetic Fields, Elliott Smith’s sweet, swollen orchestral period, and the Smiths’ dry and pretty misery, all the way back to John Lennon’s caustic candy and the helpless loneliness of something like “Begin the Beguine.”) But if the lyrics on Gossamer tend to get lost in cryptic grimness, the music loses itself another way. As the tracks roll on, synth washes and drum rolls and keening choir-of-one choruses accumulate, pressing themselves close…too close; “I’ll Be Alright” (“I’ve made so many messes”) twitches from giddy, stuttering beats to tinkling chimes and back again; and album closer “Where We Belong,” a sentimental suicide narrative, drapes itself in strings. The maximalism begins to feel more like minimalism. There’s a great clutter of stuff, but not much range. Before it’s over, the album has you feeling oppressed and exhausted.

Gossamer is an earnest, excitable record, eager to entertain and connect and to transmute pain into candy. And it’s much more assured and communicative than Manners, Passion Pit’s 2009 debut. But Passion Pit aren’t yet subtle or inventive enough confectioners: this young and slightly rickety band have a sense of pop melody that’s not quite developed, and a sense of rhythm that’s flat and nervous. As a result, the emotions that Angelakos is earnestly and fearlessly trying to excavate end up crunched and illegible, both too confined and too heavy. When the album gets good — on the bouncy “Carried Away,” the harrowing “Cry Like a Ghost,” and the genuinely great thesis statement (are you ready for this title?) “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy” — you can feel Angelakos’ experiences, not just in the lyrics, but in their delivery and the gleaming wash that surrounds them. You can feel not just the size but the precise, peculiar shape of his pain. On the rest of Gossamer, the pain is still there, but it’s blunted by the weak, monotonous delivery. You’re being pulled close, but thoughtlessly, reflexively. And you only feel further away.