Guitarist/singer/songwriter Jack Antonoff may not have quite reached household name status in his own right, but his indie rock credentials are far from unimpressive. As well as having co-written songs for Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen and Sara Bareilles, he was a founding member of New Jersey band Steel Train. He later split from Steel Train to focus on his new role as lead guitarist for the oddly-punctuated fun., whose lead single ‘We Are Young‘ from their second album shot them into overnight fame in 2012. It was while touring with fun. that Jack formed Bleachers as a solo project—Strange Desire is the first album under this new handle.
It’s immediately obvious that Bleachers is more fun. than Steel Train (no pun intended). The stellar opening track, ‘Wild Heart’, is ripe with the heavy basslines, dramatic synth drums and anthemic choruses that defined fun.’s 2012 offering, Some Nights. But that’s not to say Bleachers have directly lifted their sound from their sister band. While Some Nights and Strange Desire are definitely in the same bracket of loosely hiphop-inspired pop rock, there’s enough that’s unique to the latter to set it apart.
Perhaps the most noticeable example is the strong eighties influence present throughout Strange Desire. Vintage-sounding guitars, bold synth lines, and echoing electronic drums are prominent right from the offset, harking back to the enthusiastic cheese of 1980s pop. Yet this album never feels dated—the eighties components are layered amongst very current features, including prominent vocal sampling and occasional autotune effects.
The result is a distinct impression of an artist in the present, nostalgic for the past, and this is no coincidence. From lyrics such as “Now everything has changed / And I can’t tell what matters” in ‘Wild Heart’ and “And I miss the days of a life still permanent / Born in the years before I got carried away” to the promotional videos for singles ‘Shadow‘ and ‘I Wanna Get Better‘, shot on an authentic VHS camcorder, signs of Antonoff’s childhood nostalgia are there at every turn.
To the cynical listener it could almost come across as self-indulgent, but the strength and quality of the songwriting more than make up for it. At its most mainstream, Strange Desire provides some excellent summer pop tracks—the first single from the project, ‘I Wanna Get Better’ is perfectly uplifting and catchy, with lyrics that are almost literally crying out to be sung at the top of your lungs “Now I’m standing on the overpass screaming at the cars / (Hey) I wanna get better”.
‘Take Me Away’, the seventh track, with a guest appearance from Canadian singer-songwriter Grimes, is also well worth a mention. In stark comparison to the many upbeat, energetic songs on Strange Desire, ‘Take Me Away’ is much slower and more thoughtful—as the shortest track at just 2:31, it serves almost as an intermission, providing a moment’s calm midway through the album before the pace picks up again. However that’s not to say that it’s doesn’t work as a standalone track: the echoing melancholy evoked by complex layering of Antonoff and Boucher’s voices is powerful and elegant, making it well worth a listen.
In some of the later tracks the more experimental side to Bleachers shows itself: ‘I’m Ready To Move On / Wild Heart Reprise’, the verbosely-titled penultimate track begins with an absurd vocal sample provided by Yoko Ono (of course), before she’s replaced by a heavily-effected, almost robotic version of Antonoff’s vocals from ‘Wild Heart’. It’s unarguably bizarre, and will undoubtedly put some listeners off—but the beauty of the layering of elements from several of the earlier tracks (track 6, ‘Reckless Love’ also sees a brief comeback in this reprise) is hard to ignore.
If there were any fears that Bleachers would only ever amount to a cut-price knock-off of fun., Strange Desire proves the opposite. While both fun. and Bleachers have some very strong individual tracks, Some Nights was a poorly paced album, feeling more like ten randomly-selected tracks thrown together; by comparison Strange Desire is immaculately planned from start to finish. Ultimately, it’s difficult to find flaws in Bleachers’ début release: it flows perfectly as a continuous album, but almost every track stands up just as well in its own right. Jack Antonoff may not yet be a household name, but this might be the project that gets him there.
Strange Desire is out now on RCA Records: watch the music video for ‘I Wanna Get Better below.’