Musically, there’s a lot to like about Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night, the third album from Bleachers—essentially Jack Antonoff’s one-man band (though touring members of the group joined him in the studio this time around). The musician-producer’s penchant for ’80s-style pop remains undimmed, with synths, horns, sax, and more all popping up repeatedly, alongside Hall & Oates-like guitar sounds and arrangements that recall the middle of the Me Decade’s Billboard hits. And his facility with big hooks hasn’t gone astray: Whether it’s the sly, Talking Heads-aping refrain of “Big Life,” the midtempo, dance-floor shout-sing of “Stop Making This Hurt,” or the nursery-rhyme simplicity of gently swinging acoustic ditty “Secret Life,” nearly every song has a verse or chorus earworm capable of lodging itself firmly into your brain.
So why does it sound like Antonoff has never been less certain about his role in giving voice to this music? Nearly every vocal performance on the album comes across like a demo track that somehow found its way onto the finished product. Clever lyrical couplets, character-study narratives, and soul-baring confessionals alike all get buried in the mix or tweaked in clunky ways, time and again, usually slathered with enough reverb to make Michael Stipe envious of how many syllables get swallowed up by the surrounding noise. It’s obviously a very deliberate choice, but the effect is one of profound distancing: Here’s a gifted artist who has crafted an entire album’s worth of anthems of longing, escape, and hope for something better, and yet when it’s over, you feel less connected to the guy behind it all than you did when it began. It’s as though years of working with pop stars who put their vocals first have driven his to the margins of his own music.
Some of this is the result of the same recording techniques Antonoff has always applied to his own voice. Put plainly, he’s a not-terribly-good singer with a fairly limited range, so he puts studio wizardry to good use in dressing up his own sometimes lackluster delivery: Think of the bridge to Gone Now’s “Everybody Lost Somebody,” where he sounds like he’s dropping in from a bathroom next door to the studio, or the Auto-Tune on “Goodbye,” or even the endless layering of his voice on “Wild Heart,” the very first track on Bleachers’ first album. In all those cases, the effects were in service of strengthening and amplifying the vocals, nimbly adapting to create the most workable version of Antonoff’s singing, which he would frequently adjust in kind, based on what the song called for.
But here, it never feels like he wants to add heft to his vocals to improve the song, so much as give just enough of the voice to assure listeners that, yes, this is a pop song you’re hearing. Sometimes it’s just plain bad: His entrance on “Chinatown” is so limp and out of his range that when Bruce Springsteen comes in later and demonstrates what an actual singer can do with the material, you almost feel bad for Antonoff. (The listener could be forgiven for thinking they’d bury such a weak vocal performance, too.) But this trend continues repeatedly, from the trebly skronk that mars his otherwise solid delivery on “Big Life” to the spacey, dreamlike effect he slathers on his words in “Don’t Go Dark,” muting any energy or momentum that threatens to burst forth. The overall impression is one of a guy who trusts his music but not his voice, and it’s an alienating effect.
The biggest exception to this rule (and there are a few) is album opener “91,” where the music supports a strong lead vocal, and vice versa. According to interviews, this is one of the oldest tracks on the record, one that helped shaped the subsequent vision of the project, so perhaps it retained his facility for solid vocal production, only to gradually lead into the ebbing of such strong engineering. And there are a couple other successes: “How Dare You Want More” pops and fizzes with the ebullience of Bleachers’ early material, while “45” is a zippy acoustic number that evokes memories of old-school Bright Eyes. But these are detours from the end result of a record that can’t quite find a way to make its words sing. Antonoff has helped any number of pop stars find their most iconic voices in the last few years; perhaps it’s time for one of them to return the favor, because Bleachers’ musical maestro sounds like he might need the assist.