One of my favorite musical memories was a moment of serendipitous timing outside a record store in Florence, Italy. We found this store almost as an afterthought, popping our heads in at the end of a long day of traveling. But as we left the store, we saw a man busking across the street, singing “Sex On Fire” by Kings Of Leon at the top of his lungs. And I’ll never forget watching this man, singing the lyrics in both English and Italian, crooning “This man is on fire” to a person passing by on a bike. As I watched the assembled crowd start to sing along, again in a mix of languages, I was struck by how a deliberately audacious, silly slice of pop-rock bliss had transcended cultures and boundaries.
All this is to say that when I heard the saxophone on “Everybody Lost Somebody,” made to sound not dissimilar from the street busker I saw in Florence, I knew that Jack Antonoff has had experiences like that. Experiences that made you become not just a spectator in the world around you, but a participant, connected with others. And he realizes that so many of these moments and connections are made through our most universal of languages: music. In many ways, that is what Gone Now, the sophomore record of Jack Antonoff’s project Bleachers, seems to be about: living presently and openly engaging and trying to connect with the people around you.
The refrain in “Goodmorning,” which is repeated with different syntax throughout the album, sets the stage for this attempted human connection, as the narrator takes his first steps towards trying to open himself up to people: “Good morning to the cops, good morning to my upstairs neighbor, and to the kids at 42, anyone who lent me a favor.” But it takes the song’s second verse for us to transfer from polite greetings to transfers of human connection and empathy: “She touched me and said I know you’re not to blame. What a weight to live under, what a lie that’s been covered.” And I think that moments like these are the crux of what Gone Now strives to reflect. Moments when you no longer need to hide those rolling thunderclouds which threaten to overtake your mind, but instead someone, a loved one or a compassionate person you meet, gives you the ability to let go of these feelings of regret and loss that so often seem to be bottled up.
In writing about Gone Now’s centerpiece “Everybody Lost Somebody,” Antonoff summed up his feelings about the universal weight of loss: “It’s like we all have a suitcase. We don’t want to carry around too much — then it would be impossible to keep moving. We don’t want to empty too much out — then we wouldn’t be ourself [sic]. It’s this strange balancing act that seems to be the core of being a person. The more I look around…The more I realize that the one thing we all have in our suitcase is loss.”
“Everybody Lost Somebody” is an open-hearted and open-armed embrace to those suffering with or trying to bandage over the scars of loss and grief. It’s a well-documented part of Antonoff’s life that he lost his sister to cancer when he was just eighteen years old, and it’s not at all a stretch to say that has been the catalyzing agent for his entire music career to date, but “Everybody Lost Somebody” feels like his most profound and nuanced tackling of the subject so far.
Having lost my father at seventeen, around the same age Antonoff lost his sister, its easy for me to relate to Antonoff’s sentiments about setting impossible standards for yourself about needing to ”get over” or “move on from” this loss of your loved one. “There’s a reason I can’t stop at all from changin, come on motherfucker you survived you gotta give yourself a break,” Antonoff writes. And I think he’s right, that baggage never fully goes away, perhaps over time, things start to fall out, memories of your loved ones, and that makes the suitcase a little bit lighter and easier to carry. Perhaps you find someone to help you carry your suitcase, meaning your suitcase is lighter. But then you carry part of their suitcase for them, too, and there’s no guarantee that suitcase is lighter than your own. But you keep carrying that suitcase anyway, because that is what makes you human.
But while “Everybody Lost Somebody” touches on some weighty topics, Bleachers adroitly straddles the line tonally on the record, balancing the contemplative and heart-wrenching with transcendent, feel-good pop music. “I Miss Those Days” is a nearly saccharine bombastic singalong, while “All My Heroes,” perhaps my favorite song musically on the record, builds layer upon layer onto its instantly iconic refrain: “In the focus, I’ll be dreaming / In the focus, I’ll be something better yet.”
Antonoff is still heavily indebted to John Hughes movies in his musical aesthetic. He recently live-scored The Breakfast Club and it shows. “Let’s Get Married,” one of the album’s most energetic songs, could easily have fit in on a new score to that film. In a fit of inspired creativity, Antonoff enlists Anthony Paul Jeffries, professionally known as Ninenteen85, to co-write and produce the track. Nineteen85 is most well-known for his collaborations with Drake, including “Hold On We’re Going Home”, “Hotline Bling” and “One Dance.” To see Jeffries lending his savant-like production talents and ear for atmosphere and vibe to what is otherwise one of the most straightforward songs in Antonoff’s discography is a showcase of just how important every texture is on Antonoff’s records.
It’s not just the Nineteen85 collaboration, though, that stands as a testament to this. Gone Now pushes the boundaries of what pop music can be in 2017. Gone Now supplants the very idea of a separation between pop music and other genres. It’s a record that at times feels like a throwback to late period Beatles records on songs like “Goodmorning” and “I’m Ready To Move On/Mickey Mantle Reprise.” The latter especially has a moment where Antonoff soars into a computer aided falsetto before a descending horn arrangement explodes in with a vibrancy. It could easily have been created in the Summer of Love as bands were experimenting with tape modulations and new recording techniques. But at other moments it feels like Gone Now is looking forward, past the present, to where pop music is headed. Collaborations with Sounwave, Julia Michaels, and others make songs like “Foreign Girls” and “Hate That You Know Me” sound unique and alien to the landscape of pop music. These are songs that are at once massive and undeniable and delightfully vulnerable.
The thing I love most about Gone Now is just how simply audacious it is. I think many people were surprised by how Antonoff seemed to strike gold with Strange Desire. The perfect confluence of factors led to one of the great pop-rock records of the decade. He could have easily played it safe on Gone Now and released another set of nostalgic 80s pop songs and it probably would have been well-received. But this is a daring, challenging set of dense songs, inspired by every corner of pop-music, with insane textures and attention to detail in the production. Nothing about it is a safe follow up record.
What I’ve loved about Bleachers since the very beginning, the moment I heard the project’s lead single “I Wanna Get Better,” is how Antonoff can make a personal mantra feel so universal and so uplifting. Gone Now continues that legacy with lead single “Don’t Take The Money.” Of the track’s refrain, Antonoff wrote, “It’s not about actual money. It’s about following a light, a gut feeling. Not following a gut feeling destroys your art and the people around you.”
Those four simple words seem to sum up the entirety of Bleachers as a project. Antonoff could have continued cashing checks and playing huge amphitheaters with Fun. for as long as he so desired, but instead, he took the leap, and that self-belief has lead to one of the most fascinating and inspiring pop bands of our time. It’s enough to become a reminder in our own lives, don’t chase the things that are only superficially important. We should chase the things that will make our lives fuller and more enriching, the moments that will take our breathe away, the people who know us so well that we are frustrated by it, and the songs that we will keep coming back to for decades.