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Jack Antonoff Wants to Get Better on Bleachers’ Couch Trip, ‘Strange Desire’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: July 15, 2014
Label: RCA

If you are of a certain age — and, arguably, of a certain socio-economic demographic — it’s possible you have a friend like Jack Antonoff. This friend is a kind-hearted person, obviously smart, obviously sweet, obviously stunted, and in no small amount of pain, as the world wounds us all, but wounds some more than others. One day this friend gets some help, and you are happy, because they are happy.

Then it happens: You discover to your horror that for the foreseeable future you will never have a conversation with your friend that didn’t originate in their therapist’s office. “And that’s why I’m afraid of intimacy,” you will be told, unprompted, when you’d just like to chitchat about Game of Thrones over beers. Strange Desire, the album that Antonoff has made with his new project Bleachers, arises from this desire to make sure you know, in detail, their whole deal, like it or not. It’s the same impulse that gave birth to “I Wanna Get Better,” one of the year’s best pop singles.

To be fair, Antonoff’s had a lot to work through. His younger sister died of brain cancer when she was 13, his cousin was killed in the Iraq War, and he started having panic attacks after 9/11. At it’s best, Bleachers’ debut reveals a deep well of compassion for anyone who has survived trauma. Mostly, though, it’s a one-way barrage of therapy-speak, gingerly placed atop expertly modulated synthesizer salutations and tribal drums lifted from Tears for Fears’ The Hurting.

Antonoff got his start fronting Steel Train, who recorded for pop-punk grindhouse Drive-Thru Records back in the day when Warped Tour bands could still cross over into the mainstream (his didn’t), and found success when his group fun. created the prototypical graduation anthem “We Are Young,” from their sophomore album Some Nights. Following that feat, Antonoff has become something of a modern pop-rock hit man, writing for Tegan and Sara, Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen.

Strange Desire reveals that although he has the goofiest haircut of anyone in fun., he has the straightest personality (must have been fun. frontman Nate Ruess who brought all the Adam Ant flair). All the songs here are deftly crafted, third-row-on-the-Coachella-poster-or-die-trying synth-stompers, but the only things keeping this from being Reimagined Dragons are the smart production touches from Santigold producer John Hill and synth pop OG Vince Clarke, and Antonoff’s near-superhuman sincerity. It feels uncharitable to even quote some of these lyrics, but though he doesn’t have the pipes of Ruess (and relies way too much on production trickery to try to distract you from this fact), he still sells the hell out of lines like “If I can find a way out of myself again.”

What gets stultifying over the course of 38 minutes can be invigorating in small, pep-talk size bursts. “Rollercoaster” creates a “Depeche Springsteen” mashup with way less huffing and puffing than the Killers ever managed, and “Shadows” has enough of a jubilant swing that you might not be inclined to contemplate whether lines like “If you’re feeling small/ I know they have hurt you/ I know it’s getting harder” come off as unwittingly condescending or not.

And then there’s “I Wanna Get Better,” a more humane timeline’s Song of the Summer and an example of an artist so succinctly summing up their entire raison d’etre in one song that the accompanying album becomes superfluous. Over a glam stomp and keyboard stabs that loop over themselves like a GIF, Antonoff dials down the when-you-say-this-I-feel-this-way talk and gets to the point, turning “I didn’t know I was broken/ Until I wanted to change” into an unexpected rallying cry, one that implies that the histrionic bloodletting of both pop and overemotional rock is only useful if catharsis is the first of many steps. It doesn’t look like “I Wanna Get Better” is going to unseat Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” in the SOS sweepstakes, but if it manages to convince some people that they shouldn’t feel weird about getting some help, then Antonoff can rest soundly, knowing he’s done some good in the world. Hopefully his therapist agrees.