Michael Angelakos may not have been the first bedroom pop producer to set the internet ablaze and follow up with a masterful debut, but he’s likely the one we all know and adore the most. “Sleepyhead” remains a contender for “Twentysomething Anthem of Forever,” and songs from 2009’s Manners probably define at least part of every night you spent out in college. Passion Pit’s synth-rock debut album was distinctly young, full of vigor, a deranged celebration riding its own wave of cruelly infectious major-key hooks, hybrid electro/R&B beats and Angelakos’s strained, urgent falsetto. It was, in the best, most joyful sense, Solo Cup music.
Except that it wasn’t – not entirely. The songs on Manners cycled through mania (“Let Your Love Grow Tall”), pessimism and self-doubt (“Moth’s Wings”) and sheer lyrical exuberance (“Sleepyhead”), and the music you were bouncing around to often had dark undercurrents: on “Little Secrets,” Angelakos slips the line “And I cannot help but ignore the people staring at my scars” right under the penultimate chorus’s nose. Obscuring those feelings was a conscious decision on Manners; for Gossamer, Passion Pit’s second LP, emotional autobiography is front and center. In an interview with Pitchfork, Angelakos confided, “All the truth is in the lyrics. You can hear what I'm saying on [Gossamer]. I purposefully hid everything I was saying on the last record, and that's very telling.” And it’s true. Gossamer trades confession for symbol and narrative for image; Angelakos’s voice is less processed, as if he wants his voice to be heard, and while these songs swirl around familiar themes – drinking, pills, neurosis, love – his earnestness makes them his own. Only by putting everything on the line, by putting the knife to your own chest, can you finish an album with the line “All I’ve ever wanted was to be happy and make you proud” and not sound put-on or trite.
As on Manners, the music itself isn’t always an accurate bellwether for lyrical content. Angelakos’s compositions on Gossamer err toward eyes-skyward expansion, even explosion; every song is more governed by compatible textures than by the heavy hand of an insistent, flawless pop melody. “I’ll Be Alright” scintillates across a dizzying synth latticework, and album standout “Mirrored Sea” is nervous and pummeling until the bridge abruptly sinks into a muddy, hypnotic club beat. Vocal samples feature far more prominently as the keystones of these songs, especially on the radically different, and excellent, bump n’ grind of “Constant Conversations,” “I’ll Be Alright” and the soulful, fuzzy “Cry Like a Ghost.” On the other hand, the record’s B-side, with the exception of “Hideaway” and closer “Where We Belong,” which delivers that final pleading lyric, veers away from the surprise and sophistication of those earlier tracks, preferring Top-40-esque structures for decidedly sappier lyrics.
But at its best Gossamer is, like its namesake, delicate at first glance but possessed of incredible molecular strength. The songs here demonstrate a leap forward for Angelakos, a willingness to test the waters of a hundred streams at once (Alex Aldi, the record’s engineer, estimates that 80 to 120 instrumental tracks were involved in the album’s production). They’re less brash, less visceral than the pulse of Manners’ best, but they’re also more honest – sometimes brutally so. On “Cry Like a Ghost,” Angelakos turns a cynical eye on his own habits: “And yes, I drank all those drinks on my own / My life’s become some blurry little quest.” It’s a disarmingly personal, even worrisome claim, and with the recent cancelation of Passion Pit’s first few summer tour dates, the lyric suddenly enters reality in a way that’s normally reserved only for the songwriter. Asking the listener, the fan, to enter the reality of that psychic crisis, and still dance a little in spite of it, is Gossamer’s greatest success.
Audio: Streaming at NPR