Producer, songwriter, and fun. band member Jack Antonoff’s solo project, Bleachers, has never been everyone’s cup of tea. From the moment “I Wanna Get Better”, the first single off Bleachers’ debut record, Strange Desire, dropped in 2014, critics bemoaned the over-dramatic sincerity, embrace of capital-F Feelings, and extremely synthy, saccharine production. But there should be no inherent shame in obvious and emotional music, and Bleachers’ best songs, like “I Wanna Get Better”, feel like an IV pumping vibes of “I understand and I’ve been there and you’re going to be okay” right into the bloodstream.
On Gone Now, the follow-up to Strange Desire, Antonoff dives even further into his impulses and desires, and the end product is much more ostentatious and much less cohesive than his best work.
Let’s start with the good. Single “Don’t Take the Money” is exactly what you come to Bleachers for: romantic pleading, noble desperation, and pure unabashed effusion. The song knows what it’s doing and does it well, with pounding synths and swooning ’80s theatricality. It’s too much — of course, it’s too much — but that’s why it’s so great. “Don’t Take the Money” is a tasty meal complete with all the food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup.
The rest of Gone Now fares less well. With Bleachers, Antonoff strives to honor and emulate heroes like Peter Gabriel, Billy Joel, and fellow Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen, and he often goes overboard on epic drama at the expense of the actual music. Take “Goodmorning” for example, where he tries to evoke the feeling of being a good boy in real America to the tune of a jaunty piano and some curious, echoey call-and-response oh-ohs. It’s more than a little too Sesame Street, and lines that strive to be poignantly specific fall flat: “I lied to your face in the summer/ I had my hair short then.”
There are essentially two themes on Gone Now: nostalgia and love. Other people’s love always looks a little empty, a little too simple from the outside, so you can hardly find fault with Antonoff for being bold enough to follow the song of his heart on tracks like the exuberant wish-fulfillment anthem “Let’s Get Married” and “All My Heroes”, which sees Antonoff taking several pages from U2’s book. The results, however, laden as they often are with unsubtle production choices like super bouncy horns, elaborate synth marathons, and background choirs, often end up cloying.
Even if I don’t personally like many of the choices Antonoff makes on Gone Now, I can at least understand most of them and appreciate what they’re trying to do. As hard as I try, though, I can’t fathom why he included the track “Goodbye”. It’s a revisiting of “Goodmorning”, but he changes the lyrics to “goodbye” and remakes the song as a tepid ’90s boy band anthem, then runs alongside it a recording of girlfriend Lena Dunham sleepily and intimately discussing her personal memories and emotional struggles. “Goodbye” can be seen as a sweet, fun experiment, if a bit of a self-indulgent one, but with its awkward mixing and outmoded style, it simply doesn’t hold up as a complete piece of music, especially when it’s not even a cheeky album finale but rather track 8 of 12.
There is a moment toward the beginning of single “Hate That You Know Me So Well” when the instrumentals drop out and Antonoff snaps, “And you know what, I hate it.” It’s jarring, in a good way, to hear Antonoff go dry and flat. Throughout Gone Now he’s so over-the-top serious in his earnestness that a moment like that registers as a different, more potent type of seriousness, like when your forgiving sweetheart of a boyfriend actually has had enough. That “I hate it” gives you a sense of where Antonoff, and this record, could have gone if he’d been willing to follow that ugly, striking anger further, like Ethan Hawke busting out his “sweaty-toothed madman” poetry at Robin Williams’ urging in Dead Poet’s Society.
Instead, on Gone Now, we get cheap, sugary sax and blockbuster movie climaxes and revelations like a hand-clapping “everybody’s lost somebody,” which don’t feel much like real revelations at all. Antonoff is incredibly talented: he’s written and produced for pop’s best (Lorde, Sia, Carly Rae Jepsen, Grimes), and Gone Now makes it clear that he knows his way around a chorus — he often jumps right into them at the start of songs — but verses are strained and general while impulses are too often freely indulged, rather than examined and pulled apart in the hopes of building something that looks more like innovation than imitation.
Antonoff’s feelings are valid — and they’re often relatable — and his big, open heart is in the right place, but Gone Now shows that without external voices and perspectives to temper and mold them, those feelings just don’t make for great music.
Essential Tracks: “Don’t Take the Money”