During Bleachers’ concert last Tuesday at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles (which was, coincidentally, the opening night of Lorde’s headlining tour in support of Melodrama in Manchester, UK), frontman Jack Antonoff took a moment mid-way through the set to encourage the audience to listen to silence in a crowded theater.
The room filled with a deep, low hum, emanating from what Antonoff would identify as a Roland Juno 106 keyboard. He used that warm, monotone sound as a reference point, claiming that it was the sound he would listen to when isolating himself with headphones to write music. Even in moments of sadness, that noise comforted. He imagined what it would be like to someday share the sounds with an audience, transforming the low rumbling of solitude into the quiet murmur of a crowd in anticipation.
“I dreamt of drums,” he said, rattling off a list of instruments in rapid succession, building, eventually nodding to the keyboard player. And like a wind-swept avalanche, the solo piano melody that begins “Rollercoaster,” a single off of the band’s 2015 debut, Strange Desire, barreled into a soaring cosmic anthem, so far removed from the grounded, haunting humming that lays at the bottom of the track.
With his partner, Lena Dunham, watching from the balcony, and frequent collaborator, Carly Rae Jepsen, lurking in the back, it is hard to imagine whether Antonoff or Bleachers will ever play a venue this small on future tours. Many of Antonoff’s collaborators are arena staples — Lorde, Taylor Swift, Sia. Bleachers has the potential to be no different.
In the years that followed the release of Strange Desire, Antonoff has shifted from an emo-pop mainstay to an incomparable force in pop music. From delineating himself from fun., to his becoming entirely idiosyncratic in Bleachers, to becoming an in-demand producer for some of today’s biggest pop artists — such as Taylor Swift — Antonoff is now an entity in and of himself.
His recent collaboration with Lorde on her latest album, Melodrama, is a testament to Antonoff’s ability to both command and distort the pop machine. This disruption is both a point of contention and celebration in the pop world.
In the New York Times, Lorde disclosed that Max Martin — the reigning monarch of Top 40 pop production — called her single “Green Light” a case of “incorrect songwriting.” But it is not incorrect; the Melodrama track, co-authored by Antonoff, stems from an understanding of form, and a willingness to disrupt it by perking the listener’s ear up with attention at an off-putting key change or apparent genre shift.
Listening through the entirety of Gone Now, Bleachers’ latest record which was released just two weeks before Melodrama this past June, Antonoff not only knows how to write a pop song — he knows how to write a pop album. It possesses the cohesiveness of an album like Michael Jackson’s Thriller paired with the auteur/producer dynamic of Brian Eno, and this fusion makes the B-sides worthy of a second (or third or fourth) listen. But as pop music has historically become a singles game — due largely to the mechanized success of Max Martin and his bubblegum pop militia — the ability to write a pop album with through-line themes and leitmotifs can result in jarring, misaligned singles that somehow make perfect sense when stitched into a full album.
And if Melodrama is the synth-heavy pomp and circumstance of ramped-up, emotion-driven pop, Gone Now is the symphonic backbone. When listened to through headphones, tracks on Gone Now bleed in one ear and out the other, making full use of the multi-track stereo recording technique that was popular during the mid-1960s (Pet Sounds, anyone?). On tape, Gone Now is a methodical study of pop production, overlain with emotion-boasting lyrics. When brought to life on stage, Gone Now is no longer the backbone or blueprint of a pop landscape — it is, instead, a live, beating heart.
Although he writes music made for stadiums, Antonoff himself is made for small crowds. He reaches out into the audience to shake hands. He makes eye contact with one person on the barricade at the time. He brings out a birthday cake for one of his bandmates then passes it onto the crowd, urging everyone to make sure they get a bite.
In Bleachers’ recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Antonoff admits to this affinity for crowd intimacy, saying: “My manager says his one complaint is, ‘When you play for like, a thousand people, don’t talk to one person. It’s only cool for them.’ And it’s true; I’ve seen videos where I’m on the mic talking to one person and everyone’s really pissed!”
Decades from now, it is not improbable that Antonoff will be deified for redefining the sonic landscape of the moment, in the vein of Brian Eno and Phil Spector. But what lies at the core of all of Antonoff’s work is his generosity: he writes moving, personal narratives that are perfectly packaged with pop choruses; he shares the works that were made in his bedroom, in the studio, or wherever creativity is cultivated, with a captive crowd; and he leads that crowd every night in a defiant battle cry, screaming “I wanna get better!” while hoisted up by the audience, echoing a sentiment that people often think but rarely say.
Antonoff builds from the sonic backbone, singing at the barricade. He performs himself into existence with every set.