Album Review: Bleachers, ‘Bleachers’

    Just minutes before their conversation comes to an end, Zane Lowe tells Jack Antonoff to shut up. The pair have been waxing on about process, grief, and collaboration – including, of course, working with Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey – but when the Bleachers frontman and superproducer casually mentions getting to know street skating champion Rodney Mullen, Lowe flips out, looks back at the crew, and says, “You know how much of a flexer this guy is? You won’t even realize he’s flexing on you until you’re sitting with him at Electric Lady Studios for four hours and he tells you he’s friends with Rodney Mullen.” Antonoff lets out a small laugh and proceeds to tell the story, which explains one of the most enlightening moments on Bleachers’ new self-titled album, a quote from Mullen that gives the Tony Hawk documentary Until the Wheels Fall Off its name: “I wish I could relate the intagibles to you,” he says, faced with the question of what drives him to keep going. “My guess,” he pauses, “is that we’re all built the same.”

    Consider that this comes at the end of a song called ‘Ordinary Heaven’, which could have been the title track, and it immediately scans as Antonoff’s own ‘Judah Smith Interlude’. But while Lana Del Rey’s recording of a sermon by the controversial megachurch pastor was strangely immersive, Mullen’s quote is lifted out of context as a form of reverence – have zero idea of who this guy is and you’d guess he’s an artist or spiritual figure of some sort, someone in Antonoff’s circle who happened to say something profound while the mic was on. His own idea of ordinary heaven is to be someone’s witness, and his job is to keep track of it – not a bad metaphor for the producer’s role, which Antonoff embraces as he lets Mullen’s words encapsulate what he’s spent the whole album trying to lyrically relay: the borderline stupidity of sticking to a childhood dream, of wanting to be seen for what you’ve got to give, drawing a line between the lonely and the holy. Bleachers doesn’t sound effortless – part of the appeal is how hard Antonoff tries to get a very particular feeling across, knowing it’s bound to get muddled – but for every moment where he swings for the fences, there’s another where he sits back and lets the magic happen. It’s the band’s best yet.

    Bleachers’ last album, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, was messier in its attempt to deliver propulsive and anthemic songs alongside quietly hazy ones, but Bleachers strikes a more delicate balance, and it uses its shakiness to its advantage. As a self-titled album, it’s forced to consider what makes a Bleachers song a Bleachers song, and the first single, ‘Modern Girl’, offers the most typical example: bright, shouty, and infectious, indebted to the ‘80s but modern enough in its references to warrant inclusion on the final season of Netflix’s Sex Education. ‘Self Respect’ and ‘Tiny Moves’ work in a similarly upbeat mode but toy with different ends of it. ‘Self Respect’ is even brasher and more theatrical, roaring to the declaration, “Destroying somebody’s  life as a means of saying/ I’m still here and I’m still playing.” ‘Tiny Moves’ has a lush sheen to it but refrains from going too wild, as if not to distract from the image Antonoff conjures in the lyrics, which is depicted quite literally in the video, choreographed by and starring his wife, Margaret Qualley.

    “I’m so tired of having self-respect,” Antonoff sings with striking directness. In musical terms, maybe that lack of respectability translates to having loads of saxophone, which he promptly squeezes out of ‘Tiny Moves’ before it explodes, or using outmoded production techniques. But Bleachers have always been bombastic in nature, retro to the point of pastiche, nostalgic as a means of escapism – what the new album achieves is being a little more reckless in the quieter moments, juxtaposing grandeur with real vulnerability. It’s almost painful to hear Antonoff’s voice crack as he howls the titular promise of ‘We’re Gonna Know Each Other Forever’, nothing like the last album’s ‘Stop Making This Hurt’, but it’s like, yes, finally – all that misty-eyed sentimentality, the kind he sings about protecting on the affecting ‘Isimo’, finally tearing up. We know Bleachers is a vehicle for Antonoff’s earnestness, but even in that context it can be toned down for the sake of taste – it’s refreshing to hear him really lean into it, whether he’s yelling and upping the tempo or huddling over the microphone, muttering scenes from the old days.

    The question a self-titled album poses, of course, isn’t just musical but philosophical, and to that, Antonoff doesn’t provide a single answer. Bleachers is his band, enabling moments like the ending of ‘me before you’, where acoustic guitar, sax, and drums flourish dreamily in the shadows. It’s also, inevitably, his band: the space Antonoff carves out for himself, swirling in thought, making sense of his journey – less abstractly this time, compelled to focus and reframe it as a result of the right one coming along (‘Woke Up Today’). He can’t shake off his nerdy and methodical production instincts, less interested in always finding the best hooks than ways to make them more interesting, like the groove that comes slightly out of left field on ‘Ordinary Heaven’ and clicks the whole thing into place. He can’t help but flex, too, “messing around” with Lana Del Rey and turning it into a song, inviting Clairo and Bartees Strange to sing backup; St. Vincent and Florence Welch appear elsewhere. It’s squaring up the collective “we” in ‘Modern Girl’ with the perception of him being a “pop music hoarder” – his words, not mine. But then there’s the ultimate proposition, which is that Bleachers is all of us, or for those of us: “The tired on the wire/ The born strange desired.” It might be the thing that makes you go, Oh, shut up. Or it might just make you believe.

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    Just minutes before their conversation comes to an end, Zane Lowe tells Jack Antonoff to shut up. The pair have been waxing on about process, grief, and collaboration – including, of course, working with Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey – but when the...Album Review: Bleachers, 'Bleachers'