As a music critic, I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due to certain artists for their contributions to music, regardless of one’s own fondness of their art. There are countless musicians towards whose material I may personally be lukewarm, but who I nevertheless appreciate for their undeniable successes and influence in their field, and Jack Antonoff is one such artist. Across his endeavours as a member in numerous indie rock and folk outfits, such as Steel Train and, most notably, one-hit wonder, fun., it’s not often that my opinions concerning such acts have ever been particularly enthusiastic and, in fact, I’ve been rather negative towards some of fun.’s work at times. This being said, I can greatly appreciate the keen ear that Antonoff has exhibited for solid melodic tones and catchy chorus craft across much of his material, even as part of the aforementioned groups, and his career as a producer and songwriter for artists spanning from Christina Perri and Carly Rae Jepsen to Lorde and St. Vincent has seen the songster leave a rather defined mark on a huge portion of the contemporary pop landscape. I would potentially even go as far to say that his contributions behind the desk to albums such as Taylor Swift’s 2014 smash record, 1989, have opened up a great deal of popular music listeners to his definitive production style without them even realising it, and my ears still prick up when I hear a new pop song on the radio that bears Antonoff’s distinctive hallmark. Given the respect I have for the artist as a musician, a songwriter and a producer, I’m still waiting for the day when Antonoff releases a record that crystallises all the best aspects of his abilities, whilst following them through by patching up some of the holes that have often been noticeable across his past output. Upon the launch of a Jack Antonoff solo project called Bleachers back in 2014, which came with the instant success of the power pop anthem I Wanna Get Better, I felt that the musician came closer to completely bringing to fruition the artistic capacity that he has proven himself capable of attaining in short bursts in the past, although the first Bleachers album, Strange Desire, nevertheless fell short as a result of Antonoff’s over-reliance on a somewhat redundant 1980s pop pastiche. As such, I was anticipating the arrival of Bleachers’ sophomore record, Gone Now, as I was tentatively optimistic that a second shot at the project’s glossy, new wave-infused pop stylings might prove to iron out some of the creases evident on Strange Desire. Unfortunately, however, not only does this latest studio outing from Antonoff under his Bleachers alias compound the insubstantial 80s throwback of its predecessor, but it also features some incredibly prominent misfires with regards to the production, which is the last thing I wanted or expected to say about an undertaking from Jack Antonoff. An occasional whiff of one of the songwriter’s strong hooks may seep through the record’s cracks every now and then, but for the most part, Gone Now is one of the spottiest and most uninspired projects that Antonoff has put his name to thus far in his career.
In a sense, Strange Desire could be viewed as planting the seeds to much of the experimentation present in the production across Gone Now, but at the same time, that’s not to say that many of the more idiosyncratic instrumental choices across this new Bleachers album come as a logical progression from the project’s previous full-length endeavour. Although many of Antonoff’s extravagant production quirks on Strange Desire came across as overly-indulgent a lot of the time, the deliberately muddled nature of the mixing at times worked to fortify the lyrical themes of confusion surrounding the singer’s feelings towards a former lover, whilst not necessarily coming across too strongly as to detract from the actual songwriting and performances. On Gone Now, however, Antonoff truly pushes the boat out when it comes to playing with the production across the course of the record, but so much so that he simply gets lost in a sea of turbulent binaural mixing and jarring tonal inconsistencies right from the onset. Rather than the potent refrains and sharp melodies of Strong Desire, Gone Now is comprised of some of Antonoff’s structurally weakest compositions thus far, which the musician seemingly attempts to make up for in the interminable production gimmicks that litter much of the album. Taking a cut such as the opening track, Dream of Mickey Mantle, if you were to strip away all the bells and whistles of the production, you would be left with a relatively bare-bones song comprised of a driving, 80s-inspired synth bass line and a simple drum machine loop, over which Antonoff delivers a vocal performance that, by his standards especially, is lacking in any especially striking melodic tones. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing a deliberately simple song that is brought to life through some interesting production techniques, but the approach employed on Dream of Mickey Mantle is nothing short of messy, and seemingly not in the way that Antonoff intended. With the gradual inclusion of instrumental swells, abrupt bursts of breakbeat drums and layers of swooping backing vocals, it comes across as if the musician was attempting to play on the straight, propulsive rhythm of the song to allow the production to naturally gain momentum in a gripping manner, eventually giving way to an explosive climax. The actual end product, however, is put together far too sloppily to actualise this idea. With many of the song’s crescendos being integrated seemingly arbitrarily, whilst many of the successive instrumental additions are incorporated so jarringly as to divert attention from the main body of the cut, it almost seems as if the decadent production was simply utilised as to disguise what is, in reality, a rather insipid song with a structure that gets old far too quickly. The following track, Goodmorning, doubles-down on these issues by taking what could have been a peppy, if not entirely original, piano anthem and bestrewing it with jarring and poorly executed production techniques that amount to nothing more than distracting gimmicks. Whilst there exist traces of explosive vocal melodies amidst the mess of the track’s timbre and mixing, such moments are notably fragmented and, once again, were you to strip away the production contrivances, the uncovered composition would be one that revolves largely around repeated phrases and little semblance of a strong structure. Unfortunately, this isn’t an oddity that only affects a few songs throughout the tracklisting, rather the majority of the album, from the predictable 80s synthpop anachronism of Let’s Get Married to the horribly clunky and metallic trumpet tones of I Miss Those Days, brandishes song structures, melodies and instrumentation that lacks the potency of anything off Strange Desire.
Given that Antonoff has never bore a particularly special ability as a singer in any technical sense, it’s often the charisma that he captures and conveys through his impassioned performances and mighty vocal melodies that can make his delivery as a vocalist follow through with an impressive amount of intensity. Not only, therefore, do the production quirks across Gone Now not play to the artist’s strengths at all as a singer, in that Antonoff struggles to translate his charm through the tangles of clumsy instrumentation, but he also makes some significant missteps when it comes to his approach to performing across much of the record. Rather than sitting within his comfortable mid-range, Antonoff chooses to reach into his falsetto at various points throughout the tracklisting, which, once again, alludes to a serious miscalculation of his fortes as a vocalist. The sharp outbursts of shrill singing on Everybody Lost Somebody, as well as the anaemic, breathy falsetto during the bridge section, simply work to the detriment of one of the few songs from Gone Now to cut through with some particularly vigorous melodies, even if the horn licks are once again impaired by the feeble filter that appears at multiple points across the album. Not only is the closing track, Foreign Girls, introduced by more of this tinny trumpet filter, but Antonoff also chooses to kickstart perhaps his most heartfelt ballad on the entire record with his frail falsetto. Whilst fragile singing in a vocalist’s upper register is commonly used to emphasise a state of emotional vulnerability reflected in the lyrics, there nevertheless exists a line between an endearingly muted and fractured performance and a delivery that is so pallid as to not convey any semblance of emotion whatsoever, and Antonoff’s falsetto on Foreign Girls unfortunately leans more towards the latter. With cuts like the aforementioned Goodmorning applying clunky autotune and squawky overdubbing to the musician’s vocal delivery, Antonoff does very little to complement his singing across the course of Gone Now and the end product stands as one of his least inspired albums to date as a result.
It would seem that the recurring shortcoming apparent across Gone Now is Jack Antonoff’s unwillingness or inability to play to his clear strengths. Given that Strange Desire very much complemented his most prominent skills as a songwriter, a producer and a performer at the very best of times, it seems less as if Antonoff doesn’t know what his strengths are and how to best emphasise them, rather it comes across as if his artistic vision for Gone Now conflicts with his specialities, or at least as if he wasn’t quite sure how to reconcile these two sides to his artistry across the course of the album. It’s a shame that the record is as cluttered and chaotic as it is, as there are genuinely some points of melodic robustness and songwriting potential on songs such as All My Heroes and especially the lead single, Don’t Take the Money, largely courtesy of the compositional contributions from Lorde and her palpable chemistry with Antonoff. Outside of a very narrow selection of examples, however, Gone Now also exhibits Antonoff’s compositional capabilities at their weakest in quite some time. Ultimately, on Gone Now, Antonoff is seldom successful in pushing past the record’s pop pastiche and production gimmicks in order to craft a release that bolsters the strengths he has displayed so persuasively throughout his career.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10