When I finally took the time to discover Bleachers (fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff’s side project) I was greeted with honesty. His album Strange Desire was a record that was laser focused on capturing gradiose romantic emotion through well crafted pop melodies and lush soundscapes. Despite that previous sentence of mine, Antonoff came across as genuine and unpretentious. His voice is low and echoes from wall to wall, but it’s straightforward. He was confident and you can tell that he was engrossed in every moment in the production of the record. Of course, there were a few songs I didn’t care for, but I thought the record was very good regardless. It had some of the best hooks I’d heard from a semi-mainstream band. That’s a testament to Antonoff’s songwriting ability and his experience in the pop world. He knows what we like to hear, and I respect his ability to translate that and add those sounds to his own personal experiences and lyrics.
After all this, I couldn’t help but wonder what some of these great songs would sound like in a higher register. I thought about the different dimensions the song would take, and if the emotions would change at all. Would the emotions that rose up in me while listening change? Would a female voice change the perspective of the song? Well imagine my surprise when Antonoff surprised many people by re-releasing his Strange Desire record with the songs redone and with different female artists singing each song. I couldn’t help but think Jack (whom I’ve interviewed before and can say is a very kind guy indeed) was listening to my ideas. After reading about why the decision was made, it turns out that Antonoff, according to him, hears his songs in a female voice first and then sings them an octave down out of necessity. I think that’s an interesting way to approach songwriting to be sure, and a lot of the artists I saw that were guests on this album: Sia, Elle King, Sara Bareilles, and Charli XCX among others excited me. I couldn’t help but applaud Jack Antonoff for being as confident as he is in his material. This is a guy who knows his songs have a potency to them as they were, but he’s willing to let that go and try and recapture what he had done all over again. That takes guts. But how does it stack up to the original?
Well, I will say this. The songs vary greatly, which is refreshing for me. He didn’t simply rehash the sounds of each track. But some were more successful than others. The thing is, all of these guest artists are still bound to Antonoff’s melodies and construction. So bearing that in mind, I wanted to give the tracks that resonated with me (again) a quick review. But if you’re looking for an answer as to whether you should listen at all, my answer is a resounding YES. The album’s lyrics and melodies still remain potent and resonant, and the change in vocal tone from song to song will surprise you in the best way possible. So let’s take a closer look:
Track 1 – Wild Heart (teat. Sarah Bareilles)
Sarah Bareilles has a very soothing and earnest tone, almost comparable to Antonoff himself. Instead of the pulsing, urgent tone of the music in the original, this one comes across as even more romantic, as it’s a lot more subdued and gentle. The textures are still lush, although I will say Antonoff went a little overboard on the samples on this one. I could’ve done without them at times, but if you listen to this version after the original, the two work perfectly in tandem as if they were sung by two members a couple deeply in love. It’s a soothing caress to the original’s fiery passion.
Track 2 – Rollercoaster (feat. Charli XCX)
This is one of the songs where the music wasn’t tampered with too much. Which to me is perfectly fine. The glittering neon vibe of the synth in this song was one of it’s greatest strength to begin with. Charli XCX has a very distinctive voice that to me always sounded like a cross between a rebel and seductress. To me, that adds up to someone who knows how to live and take chances, which is exactly the spirit of this song. Perfect choice. Her voice in the verses fits perfectly, but what makes this song so good is the power of the chorus. The original had Jack’s voice overlaid a few times, which gave it oomph and a gang-vocal quality. That was actually removed for this version, which I feel was not a good decision. I wanted the same gang vocal sound Charli had on “Boom Clap” but she sings straight through on this one. It’s still a fun energetic track, but that one (in my opinion) misstep took a bit away from it.
Track 3 – Shadow (feat. Carly Rae Jepsen)
This was the last song on the original that I decided I liked. However, from the beginning of this version, with its beefy and rich synth bass line, I was hooked. The stuttering guitar line from the original remains, and Jepsen takes great advantage. She makes this song her own, as if it were on her last record. It fits perfectly too. It flows perfectly right until the chorus, which like the previous song, is big and powerful on the original. However, on this one, the tempo drops out and we get a quiet synth backing and a stuttering bass kick underneath Jepsen’s voice. I was surprised by this change, but pleasantly so. I like this change a lot, as it has a similar effect that Bareilles’ “Wild Heart” had. It adds this sensitivity and almost fun loving kindness to the tone of the song. Jepsen’s voice has that quality to it, so hearing her be the focus instead of being drowned out put a smile on my face. Not to mention that synth from the beginning is infinitely better sounding than the tones of the original.
Track 4 – I Wanna Get Better (feat. Tinashe)
Wow, what a 180! This is not the pulse pounding neurotic shout along song that we all knew. This version an introspective, emotional cry for love and self improvement. Perhaps that’s what Jack had in mind with the original, but I don’t think that vibe was fully captured until now. Tinashe (the girl from The Polar Express!!) is excellent at controlling her voice and making these lyrics become even more powerful moment to moment. The quiet, muted chorus gave me goosebumps. But there are few vocal effects I wasn’t a fan of, but overall this song goes from crazy and unpredictable to sad and harrowing. The beat is still there, but the vocals and musical changes shift the tone completely. Bravo.
Track 6 – Reckless Love (feat. Elle King)
Honestly, this was the one I was the most nervous about. The original is so potent and brave a song coming from Antonoff and his voice that I wasn’t sure how Elle King, who has one of the most distinctive voices and sounds in pop music today, was going to tackle it. I’m glad to say that this was one of my favorites on the entire record. Her voice in the verses is tender and beautiful. It’s almost like if you took the best of an old time folk ballad and added synths over the top. It’s old meets new, and I’m thrilled that they kept the absolutely gorgeous synth line that comes right after the first two verses. It’s at this point, that King takes the shy, fragile tone of Antonoff and makes it powerful and confident. Her yells say, “I’m taking charge of my life. I don’t need to bend to the will of anyone who doesn’t return the love I’ve given.” I’m so glad both versions maintain distinct personalities, but this one is quickly becoming my favorite of the two.
Track 7 – Take Me Away (feat. Brooke Candy and Rachel Antonoff)
Ironically, this song already had a female vocalist, with Grimes doing a great job in the original version. The original came across as a gentle resolution to an argument from both sides, but this one, which features Jack’s sister on clean vocals, and also raps from Brooke Candy, is a classic Yin Yang song. The music isn’t changed really, but the angry and snide raps are followed by a wonderful and simple vocal by Rachel Antonoff. “I know you’re sorry” remains one of the shortest, but most powerful lines on the record, and I’m glad the vocal integrity of that line was kept intact from Grimes to Rachel. I think Antonoff was more successful with the original because it gave this image of a couple crying and making up and embracing after a bad fight. Both sides had surrendered to the moment. But this one sounds like a one sided affair, which can be just as true, but a harder pill for romantics like me to swallow.
Track 8 – Like A River Runs (feat. Sia)
I wanted to share this one because I actually don’t care for it. But I have a feeling many others out there will adore it. I personally liked the epic, anthemic sounds of the original, and though I admire Jack and Sia for taking a chance with turning this into a piano ballad, I don’t think it was as successful in it’s message. Sia still has an absolutely incredible voice, so massive props to her, but she plays with the melody at times where it doesn’t it need to be touched. I miss the pounding drums and huge sounding synth. The gentle nature of the piano in this one seems to clash with Sia’s massive voice and her soaring notes. But I don’t know, maybe I’m just not sold on it yet. Let me know what you all think of this one.
Track 9 – You’re Still a Mystery (feat. MO)
I love every minute of this. This song was my favorite of Strange Desire, and it’s my favorite still. It’s an ebullient celebration of love and every little moment you experience with someone else while you’re in love. A song of this caliber can’t be topped, I thought. I thought wrong. MO absolutely owns this song. Her raspy cuts like a knife through the song and it’s powerful and beautiful. Jack probably took note of this, and make the snare drums in this song even louder and sharp. It’s songs like this that make me want to dance around and just lose myself. And that’s the point. They even added a Bruce Springsteen style saxophone solo that Bleachers likes to add to live performances of this song. MO brings a youthful exuberance and joyful energy that can’t be controlled. That’s how you feel when you’re in love. You want to tell the world. She’s telling the world, and she doesn’t care what people think.
Well guys, those are all the songs that I thought I should talk about, but please check out the entire album as it’s truly a testament to great songwriting and a show of confidence from an artist who has captured something great. Until next time, please let me know what you guys think of the album in the comments!