Jack Antonoff has achieved a rarified ubiquity for a songwriter-producer. You can measure his prominence in Grammy Awards (five) and, to a certain extent, critics lists and charts, though for someone technically working behind the scenes, the best proof might just be the memes. Like this scrappy photoshop job of Lorde telling the Taylor Swift Evermore cover, “Mom said it’s my turn with the Jack Antonoff.” Or, the TikTok of three men tossing a child back-and-forth, which one Twitter user captioned, “Lorde, Clairo & Phoebe Bridgers passing around the Jack Antonoff.” Or, just a quick Twitter search will reveal multiple people reaching the same conclusions — all the pop girlies really are passing Antonoff around like a blunt.
Since producing a pair of tracks on Swift’s 1989, Antonoff’s not only remained one of her closest collaborators, but served as a primary producer on albums by Lorde, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, the Chicks, Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract and Clairo. He’s made tracks with FKA Twigs, Pink, Troye Sivan and Carly Rae Jepsen. His trio Red Hearse, with singer Sam Dew and producer Sounwave, released an album in 2019. And parallel to all this, he’s also had Bleachers — nominally a band, but effectively an Antonoff solo project — who are now back with their third album, and first in four years, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night.
Bleachers are the clearest window into the musical mind of an artist best known as a collaborator. From the outset, they have specialized in the kind of driving, ginormous songs that can really only be described as New Jerseyan (Antonoff is a Garden Stater, born and raised). Their 2014 debut Strange Desire and 2017’s Gone Now approached the enormity of life, heartbreak and hope with more contemporary pop flourishes and an eye towards the Eighties (not dissimilar from the work Antonoff was doing with Swift and Lorde at the time); now, on Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, the sounds are (for lack of more interesting words) more “organic” and “analog,” closer Antonoff’s recent efforts with Del Rey and St. Vincent.
It’s a consistent, intriguing, occasionally revelatory album, rooted in a 2017 break-up, but completed during the pandemic. As Antonoff recently explained to Rolling Stone, the desperation that accompanied that heartbreak echoed his desperation to play music again with other people, for other people. “I realized, ‘Oh, that’s the same feeling of being from New Jersey, that desperation of wanting out, of I want to break through into another part of my life,’” he said. The balm was to call his Bleachers bandmates into the studio, and that full-band energy anchors most ofTake the Sadness Out of Saturday Night’s mightiest moments.
Front-and-center more than ever before is Antonoff’s Bruce Springsteen worship. Sure, the man himself pops up to sing a verse on “Chinatown,” but even he doesn’t sound as Springsteen-ian as the excited, anxious, eager chimes on “Don’t Go Dark” or the call-and-response rave up on “How Dare You Want More?” Beyond Bruce, there are orchestral elements that recall the Beatles at their most baroque and that early-2000s folk/indie rock/chamber pop milieu of Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and Rostam-era Vampire Weekend. “91” with its staccato strings and overlapping, cascading vocals (reminiscent of the Jersey pop-punk/emo scene where Antonoff cut his teeth) is a compelling opener; when the brass and woodwinds return on the final two tracks, “Strange Behavior” and “What’d I Do With All of This Faith?” each is tender, gentle and aching enough, but not enough to make the other feel at least a little redundant.
The highest highs on Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night are familiar for Bleachers — rock and roll thrillers with punchy pop pleas like “Stop Making This Hurt,” “Don’t Go Dark” and “How Dare You Want More?” Like “I Wanna Get Better” and “Don’t Take the Money” before them, these songs are impeccably crafted, lab-perfected to chill one’s spine, but the performances on Take the Sadness are just shaggy and loose enough to keep the dullness of perfection at bay. Bleachers let their studio chatter, whistles, whoops and hollers settle in the mix on some tracks; it’s an old, obvious trick, but the joy isn’t contrived, it’s contagious when everyone’s trying to sing along with sax solo on “How Dare You Want More?” On “Don’t Go Dark,” Antonoff staggers the delivery of his vocals and soaks them in reverb like he’s trying to keep up with himself, while the Chicks’ unmistakable harmonies leap up in a way that would play great in an arena, but feel even better suited for the space between a club’s low ceiling and sticky floor.
For the most part, the music on Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night does conjure and harness that break-on-through energy (nothing’s outright unlistenable, and even the album’s most lackluster offering, “Secret Life,” has a couple nifty chord changes). The lyrics, meanwhile, feel rooted in the concerns of that former phase — brooding over a disintegrating love, parsing depression and fractured feelings, and dreaming of what’s next. Bleachers albums regularly feature recurring motifs, and this one is no different. Antonoff can’t stop chasing “holy ghosts” on “Secret Life,” he’s haunted by a “lonely ghost” on “Strange Behavior,” and speaking of specters with diminishing thematic returns, the Kennedys make a shrug-worthy cameo on “What’d I Do With All of This Faith.” It’s not just the repetition, but the words Antonoff chooses often feel overwrought and over-familiar. “My Chinatown baby” sounds like something an E Street neural network would spit out, and it’s not exactly thrilling to hear Springsteen sing a line like, “I wanna find tomorrow with you, baby,” when he came up with, “Just around the corner to the light of day,” 34 years ago.
Bleachers earn themselves a pass when these stock phrases aren’t hung out to dry by music that’s merely competent. The canyon-wide guitar strum of “45” lends some tact to the hook’s cheeky reference — “But I’m still in sight/Your fast machine/Always holding your love supreme” — and the “Stop Making This Hurt” line, “But me and Ray, we got a dream and a car, we’re like free as the night,” arrives with a punch as an unexpected breakbeat caroms across the mix. The novelist Zadie Smith and Del Rey helped write “91” and “Don’t Go Dark,” respectively, and unsurprisingly those contain some of the album’s most vivid and interesting language (“91” even has its own ghost, but waltzing with mom against a backdrop of endless war on TV, it earns its right to haunt). Antonoff’s own best lines don’t feel like they’ve been dwelled on, or molded to fit the rock canon, and even burst with a bit of the weird: “Who is she without all of this carryin’ fear?,” he wonders on “How Dare You Want More?” “Oh god, she’s still my mother and still my wheel.”
As much dreaming and striving as there is on Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, one of its most interesting quirks is Antonoff’s inability to stop checking himself over his wants. It’s a tic he discussed in Rolling Stone, tying it in part to his American Jewishness and the shtetl mentality still kicking around, needling and nagging with caution and guilt, despite decades of assimilation. For someone so earnest and averse to cynicism as Antonoff, it’s almost refreshing to hear him ask on “Stop Making This Hurt,” “If we take the sadness out of Saturday night/I wonder what will be left with, anything worth the fight?” He wants to run from the darkness, sure, but he wants to shout at the light, too, and when it’s all over, no one is standing triumphant; it’s practically an oy vey exhale: “Oh god we barely survived.”
This tension, combined with that full-band energy, make Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night Bleachers’ most cohesive effort. But it doesn’t quite match the grandiose expectations Antonoff’s laid out for himself as an artist who wants to make albums, not just songs. There are songs here that can stand alongside Antonoff’s best work, and it feels as if he’s beginning to carve out a clearer vision of what Bleachers can be as a band. If Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night was about trying to conjure a new phase of life, here’s hoping the next one’s even better.