Album Review: Passion Pit – Gossamer

[Columbia; 2012]

Gos-sa-mer. ˈgä-sə-mər, adjective: something light, delicate, or insubstantial.

It should be made clear that when we speak of Passion Pit, we’re really speaking about Michael Angelakos. The big-haired, notoriously solemn 25-year-old is the frontman, songwriter, founder, and face of the Cambridge electro-poppers. On their overexcited debut, Manners, those were his stories, and it was anything but polite. Its honeyed, endorphin-releasing synthesizers were a terrific front for what turned out to be a tortured inner monologue, and listeners drank it up. Still, Passion Pit’s triumphs don’t seem to have functioned as a source of comfort for Angelakos.

The subject matter on Gossamer, their sophomore release, is tangible and very potent, not light, delicate or insubstantial by any grasp. From economic woes to relationships, alcoholism and other personal demons, there’s nothing Angelakos won’t share in the name of a good pop song. Tonally, Gossamer is two albums in one. There’s the cheery one, the one you can turn your brain off to and cherish just how luminous and catchy the music is. Then there’s the ugly one, the one on paper, where you listen closely to what Angelakos is actually singing about, and realize just how broken his spirit really is. For anyone who is familiarized with Passion Pit’s backstory, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

What is surprising then, is how well the two aspects of Gossamer’s split personality feed off of each other. Lead single and lead track “Take a Walk” is the perfect tempo to soundtrack the type of exasperated march that inspired its lyrics: a man with a job, debt, expenses and a family, living beyond his means and afraid to ask for help. It’s a fully believable ode to the everyman, succinctly encapsulating common modern pitfalls in Western society amidst head-bobbing keyboards and a thumping beat. “I’ll Be Alright,” which was incited by a feud with producer Chris Zane, is fidgety but deliberate, with helium vocal samples sitting uneasily atop the haywire percussion. The chorus is a glorious comedown, and the sunset synthesizers and a deluge of tom rolls do a good job of concealing the venom within: “I’m so self-loathing that it’s hard for me to see reality from what I dream,” admits Angelakos.

“Carried Away” is the cutting, wallowing aftermath of a breakup: “I don’t really know you/ And I don’t think I want to/ But I think I can fake it if you can.” The children’s choir that tethers the chorus is used much more tastefully than it was on Manners favourite “Little Secrets.” Concluding a great first third is the candlelit ballad “Constant Conversations,” which features the some of the strongest songwriting on the album. The restraint is palpable and the music is impeccably balanced. You almost wish there were one or two slower numbers on here.

The music on Manners dealt almost exclusively in gut-level jubilance, and it received some criticism for doing so. Gossamer by contrast, feels much more studied and varied, with a kind of drab self-awareness than prevents some of its gooier moments from slipping into self-parody. “Cry Like a Ghost” and “Love is Greed” probably come the closest capturing the “classic” Passion Pit sound, but with less bluster. There’s a minor focus on expanding their sound beyond, which really emerges on the pillowy, shrouded “Mirrored Sea.” It splits the difference between modern electro and ’90s shoegaze, but Angelakos’ stratospheric falsetto keeps it distinct.

With sharp melodies and exhaustively personal lyrics, Passion Pit continue to stay a step ahead of the synthpop horde. But beyond the music, Gossamer is an engrossing psychological voyage. The tear-jerking “Hideaway” has an almost childlike temperament; the beautiful, anguished female voice singing a fragmented version of the chorus is the most emotional moment on the album. “On My Way” documents step one on the journey towards absolution. It’s the point where you realize that the struggle will eventually amount to something, even if you aren’t exactly there yet. On the finale “Where We Belong,” you get the impression that even if Angelakos isn’t terribly happy about it, his music the product of some innate drive. This is what he’s supposed to be doing; he’s making music because he has to. It has clearly come from a very damaged part of Angelakos’ psyche, but Gossamer is a step up in sophistication and songcraft, and one of the year’s stronger pop albums.