Given the subject matter – alcoholism, mental illness, a relationship in turmoil – Passion Pit’s “Gossamer” (Columbia) could have easily shaped up as the year’s biggest pity party.
That it’s not owes to the inventiveness of do-everything songwriter-producer-keyboardist-singer Michael Angelakos. Instead, it’s a soul record disguised as buoyant, uptempo dance-pop. It shares characteristics with The Weeknd’s introspective take on R&B, the twisted nostalgia of a Kanye West jam (especially in the way the munchkin voices evoke West’s sped-up dusties-soul samples) and the stomping relentlessness of a Katy Perry single.
That sort of multi-layered something-for-everyone approach can be misleading. Listen to this music from a distance and it sounds like an aerobics soundtrack led by an androgynous cheerleader. Angelakos’ tenor frequently breaks into a Barry Gibb-worthy falsetto, surrounded by a cast of sweet-voiced angels, including the Swedish a cappella trio Erato. Listen more closely, however, and “Gossamer” turns into something else: the diary of a breakdown.
Angelakos started his career with a bedroom recording designed to woo his then-girlfriend while attending Emerson College in Boston. When the track “Sleepyhead” became an unexpected MySpace hit in 2008, it was a remarkably short leap to a major-label deal and the album “Manners” in 2009.
In the intervening years, Angelakos struggled with mental illness (he was diagnosed as bipolar as a teenager) and alcoholism. The singer doesn’t hide his troubles behind metaphors on “Gossamer.” The songs play like snapshots of a life unraveling. A concerned friend in “Constant Conversations” pours out a drink in the kitchen sink because “drinking doesn’t make me nice.” The narrator in “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy” sounds like he’s phoning in an apology from an institution: “Sorry, I couldn’t be there/I was tied to a rocking chair/I was beat down to a pulp/Rocking back and forth somewhere.”
Keyboards and more keyboards, strings, voices and walloping drums saturate the senses and turn songs into mini-symphonies with shout-along choruses. The onetime bedroom artist now makes first-rate pop anthems, gleaming rocketships of sound that wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio next to Rihanna or Nicki Minaj. The tone might seem out of step with the lyrics, but it speaks to a certain resilience. Angelokos’ narrator may be scuffling, but he’s not giving up.
"Just believe in me, Kristina/All these demons/I can beat 'em," he sings with heartbreaking determination on the optimistically titled “On My Way.”
Kristina, the singer’s real-life partner, is the other crucial element in this album. “Gossamer” centers on Angelakos’ breakdown, but it’s also just as much about the selfless nature of love. It’s the only thing that stands between one man and oblivion.