What do you do when you’ve already conquered the world, but you’re still feeling small? If you are some people, maybe you internalize your feelings and retract into yourself. If you’re Jack Antonoff, you take that self-doubt and anxiety, combine it with the kind of arena-worthy hooks you’ve spent the last two years honing, and turning that feeling of minuteness into a wonderfully retro-feeling pop rock album. Strange Desire isn’t simply a rehashing of the same ideas and sonic textures of Antonoff’s band, nor is it a continuation of a his previous band Steel Train. It’s a richly layered, deeply personal album which distinguishes itself from his other projects by sounding at once nostalgic and modern.
One thing there is no small supply of on Strange Desire is the anthemic chorus. A dying breed in the days of the whisper sung “Problem” chorus or the braggadocios chorus of the “Song of the Summer” “Fancy,” these shout-along powerhouses are full of powerful melodies and are chock full of sentiment, in the best possible way. This technique is most apparent in the chorus of lead single, “I Wanna Get Better,” a song that is quite simply an easy song of the year candidate. “I didn’t know I was lonely ’till I saw your face, I wanna get better!” scream a cacophony of voices. The glitchy keyboard sampling in the song serves as a great contrast to frantic drum onslaught to provide a stunning backdrop for Antonoff’s heart-wrenching storytelling about his dealing with tragedy and loss, as well as his struggles with self-doubt.
But while the lead single revels in the kind of bombastic arena rock that lead Antonoff’s other band fun to such success a few years back, some of Strange Desire‘s greatest successes come when Antonoff settles into a reserved indie rock that has more in common with Temper Trap and The Verve. “Wake Me,” which closes the first half of the album, is a great example. The lilting nature of the song, complete with a fluttering guitar line that punctuates each line in the intro and no true chorus, features the kind of soaring vocals in it’s bridge that gave Temper Trap their biggest hit with “Sweet Disposition.”
Then there are the obvious Bruce Springsteen comparisons. I don’t know if Antonoff listened to Born In the USA while recording this record, but it would not surprise me in the slightest if he took notes on the 1984 classic before penning some of Strange Desire‘s singles. The punchy drums of “Rollercoaster” could have been recorded by Max Weinberg, and I would have been none the wiser. The track even features the same synthesizer that brought Springsteen so much success on “Dancing in the Dark.” His lyrical content is reminiscent of The Boss as well, as he has a way of at once crafting a story and relating it to the audience in a way that few since Springsteen have been able to. Taken out of context the line, “Tried to leave the pieces of a broken man / What it cost I ain’t ever getting back / So I’m breaking the lines ’cause I wanna remember,” could easily be from Springsteen’s album Nebraska (it’s actually from the heavily Cure influenced “You’re Still a Mystery”)
Then there is “Shadow” which is the kind of song that Olivia Newton-John wishes someone could have written for her back in the late 80s. The summery anthem is packed with feel good quotes, such as the slightly corny, “And I know the lights have all gone dark on you / Still I will love your shadow / When the love you gave feels cheap and used.” Though the track may be platitudinal, the hook is still so massive and undeniable that no one should really care.
There are certainly signs of the dreaded “trying to hard” assessment. A cameo appearance by Yoko Ono, while a huge attention-grabber certainly, is a dud. Ono’s highly affected vocal delivery in addition to the highly effected Antonoff vocals and the flittering sample loop kills any flow for the song (as does a horridly awkward transition halfway through the track from “I’m Ready to Move On” to “Wild Heart Reprise”). In fact the two credited guest spots on the album correspond to the two weakest tracks on the album, as the Grimes cameo on “Take Me Away”-while not being the worst thing in the world- is forgettable enough to make one wonder why it was included.
Perhaps the above observation is as great a seal of approval as I can possibly give to Antonoff’s work, however. He has such a way of crafting memorable songs for himself, that I would just prefer to hear him sing them. His ability to mesh together 80s pop rock sensibilities with the best in modern indie rock leaves me quite simply in awe. This is a truly special kind of debut album, one that leaves an indelible mark on the music scene, while still leaving fans wondering what comes next.