Gone Now: Jack Antonoff as a Model Artist
"Gone Now: Jack Antonoff as a Model Artist"
by Frank EnYart
In a YouTube instructional video for Bleachers’ smash hit “I Wanna Get Better”, lead vocalist and one-man wrecking crew Jack Antonoff spastically flies through samples and riffs on his laptop. “This one is a friend,” he remarks after playing a sample that is almost too obviously Taylor Swift. “I have this one of my girlfriend saying, ‘Go,’”, Antonoff says after triggering a sample of high-profile and divisive girlfriend Lena Dunham shouting.
It’s cacophonous, the way Antonoff hits drum pads, trying in vain to explain a process that is not only unusually personal—creating the sounds one hears in their head—but a process that is often a flash in the pan, an unrepeatable and messy impressionist feeling. Here one second, and gone the next. If it isn’t captured and recorded, it won’t be heard again.
If you listen to Strange Desire, the album that contains “I Wanna Get Better”, and other hits like “Rollercoaster” and “Wild Heart”, the throughlines are clear: Antonoff likes bombastic, loud choruses. He likes noise, organized or not. He even says it himself, very plainly, after explaining why there’s a bomb sample at the beginning of the chorus of “I Wanna Get Better”: “It’s a very literal way of saying, ‘Here, welcome to the fucking chorus.’”
Strange Desire is filled with a lot of “Welcome to the fucking ____.” It could be the chorus, the verse, Antonoff’s head, and the list goes on. Everything feels overt and on the nose: the loss of his sister, the thoughts of suicide after that loss, the overwhelming feeling of being in one of the most successful pop bands—Antonoff was one of the driving forces behind fun—and still wanting nothing more than to trap yourself in your hotel room and poke at buttons on your laptop to make the noises in your head come out.
When Antonoff began teasing Gone Now, Bleachers’ second full-length album, I began to look for signs of Strange Desire. The first single, “Don’t Take the Money”, had hints of Desire—it was raucous, fun, upbeat music with underpinnings of pain. It was familiar in the best way. Group vocals sang the chorus alongside a driving, four-on-the-floor-adjacent drum beat—I settled into it the same way I settled into Desire. The singles that followed had similar trappings. It wasn’t a huge departure or new revelation in Antonoff’s canon, or so I thought, and largely, I was okay with it. I got my strange pop music fill from other bands; I came to Bleachers for a confusingly good time.
The album dropped at 11pm—thank you, Central Time—and I sat in bed, earbuds in, waiting to hear what else Antonoff had sweat into this album.
There were claims of this being his most exhausting and personal project yet. I believed it before I heard anything from the album. Even in the little time I had witnessed Antonoff as front man, a man stepping out from behind the curtain, there was a believability about the music that was undeniable—the single, “Don’t Take the Money”, is his love letter to Dunham, and “I Wanna Get Better” is all about grieving the loss of his sister to cancer.
I waited for a “Welcome to the fucking album,” in some form. Even the songs that I had heard had some collision—some sonic wake-up call. “Dream of Mickey Mantle”, the track that begins the album, is filtered and refiltered to sound like a record player in a water cooler—a washy, blinking-the-sleep-from-your-eyes beginning; not exactly what fans of fun. or the previous Bleachers recordings are accustomed to.
The first line of the song, “All the hope that I had when I was young I hope I wasn't wrong,” is the first intelligible line to emerge from the commotion.
And even though there’s an ambiguity in what exactly the hope is, or what “wrong” is, Antonoff lets the words out in the breeze like a free balloon, with the hope the listener will grab the string, pull it down and embrace it.
I share the experience of listening to the album mostly because I hardly have a clue of what to say decisively, and I don’t take my lack of insight to be laziness, or a result that arises from a lack of trying. I’ve spent hours listening to the album, reading and rereading the lyric sheets, watching interviews Antonoff gave leading up to and following the album’s release, and I don’t think I’ve come away with any great insight about the album, or about Antonoff. But I think I've come away with some insight about the creative process.
At the beginning of the aforementioned process video for “I Wanna Get Better”, Antonoff opens the video by sheepishly saying, “I'm going to show you how I make the songs.” In the most outright way, he's correct—he shows how the songs came to be. He shows the technology and the instruments used to create his music. However, at its best it's an opaque opening into Antonoff’s world; a mysterious letdown of an insight. Perhaps it's the lack of depth that can come from a several-minute YouTube video, but that doesn't seem to be correct.
The explanation that seems to make the most sense is the classic artist’s dilemma: putting into words what can only be expressed in art. Sure, given the tools, someone could make a cheap knockoff or a distant rendering of an original, but it will never feel the same, never vibrate the same iron string that the original can.
On “Dream of Mickey Mantle”, Antonoff writes that he's in the evening light of his New Jersey bedroom “whistlin’ wind out his teeth ‘cause somebody didn't fix them right,” and temporally, as someone who was also plagued with bad dental alignment, I understand; however I never would have hinged a lyric on the phenomenon. Maybe that detail is Antonoff remarking on his middle class, Springsteenian upbringing, or maybe he was bullied over this imperfection; whatever the case may be, you're forced as a listener, one who doesn't have direct access to an artist's brain, to buy in—to believe that the inclusion of that phrase carries some significance, to believe that whistling wind through a gap in your teeth is symbolic of 20-something years of living. Just because it wasn't how you would choose to say it, doesn't mean it's any less valid.
Maybe that's why, over a month later, I'm left wondering the significance—because Antonoff knew that being personal in a specific way will confuse even the most devoted listener, and would force them to meditate over a perhaps banal inclusion. Or maybe, it's a beautiful, simple metaphor. Who knows.