You may know Jack Antonoff from one of a couple of places. From 2002 to 2013, he was the engine for New Jersey rockers Steel Train then from 2008 onwards; his side-project-turned-global-pop-phenomenon Fun slowly but surely etched their place in the hearts of fans worldwide with hits like Some Nights and We Are Young. Oh, and did we mention that he’s also been dating HBO’s Girls creator Lena Dunham since 2012? Somehow with this impressive list of accolades as a part of either a hugely successful band or an adorable power-couple, Antonoff managed to keep his Bleachers project on the down-low for the year he spent chipping away at it (largely while on tour with Fun) and the resulting record Strange Desire finally sees the light of day this month.
From top to bottom, Strange Desire is very much an ‘80s pop affair. Back in February, first single I Wanna Get Better dropped out of nowhere with a gargantuan hook the likes of which we’d heard from Antonoff before with Fun, yet with a refreshing freedom that didn’t feel the need to please a stadium crowd. Somehow manages to do so anyway.
Opening up with the unapologetically chincy electro-pop of Wild Heart, the record definitely sounds like the outcome of one person concentrating their efforts to make something beautiful. It sounds like Nintendo-emo, and this is definitely a good thing. Third single Rollercoaster is up next and his New Jersey (read: Springsteen-ian) heritage is worn proudly on his sleeve with fist-pumping “woah-oh-ohs” and biting telecasters that would surely do The Boss proud.
Third single Shadow sounds like a Talking Heads B-Side from Remain In Light with intricate drum programming and the kind of Afrobeat guitar line that has been co-opted by almost every New York indie band for about a decade. All the while, Antonoff’s singularity of vision is present enough to not only counterbalance, but also qualify the obvious slew of influences throughout. This collage of music of the past seems to inform most of the better pop music being released lately, and Antonoff must be acutely aware of this to be able to do so in such an effective way.
The twee electro-folk of Wake Me is a cute little love song that builds to an anthemic climax before Reckless Love sees Antonoff doing his best baritone-y impersonation of Stephin Merritt from The Magnetic Fields. Amid a sea of cascading synths and instantly sing-able hooks, the vocals are at once surprisingly proficient but still lack the histrionic dynamics of his Fun bandmate Nate Ruess. Fellow ‘80s-pop proponent Claire “Grimes” Boucher makes a sublime appearance on one of Strange Desire’s more ambient tracks Take Me Away. With some pretty great vocal manipulation and layering, the pair’s voices sit together well and showcase Antonoff’s ability not only to write a massive chorus, but explore the sonic landscape in a fearless and deliberate fashion.
There has to be a level of self-awareness with the 80’s Springsteen vibe on the cheekily titled Like a River Runs. It starts as a classic-pop anthem before going crazy with a sampler in ways that have to be heard to be believed. Same goes for the urgency of You’re Still a Mystery before an appearance by one of the most divisive figures in music – Yoko Ono – on the penultimate track I’m Ready To Move On/Wild Heart (Reprise) leaves you kind of puzzled. Surely the intention is pure but the caterwauling for which Ono is known is crudely autotuned in a way that may unfortunately be a little too much for some. Antonoff’s vocoder abilities provide some respite, but man… it’s tough-going in parts. The controlled, folksy experimentalism on closer Who I Want You To Love ties everything together nicely with a sense of dynamic poise and textural adventurism that could sell even the most dubious of punters.
Overall, Strange Desires is a pretty remarkable debut. There’s such a vast cross-section of pop music that has been ingested, digested and reconstituted in a way that is so unique that Antonoff should be duly congratulated. Some might baulk at the idea of the “solo-side project” but it’s clear that Bleachers is more than just a vanity project; it provides Antonoff with a venue for any sound he wants to explore and he does so with a sensibility and control that is unfortunately getting harder and harder to find nowadays.