Unwaveringly Tasteful: „Bleachers“ by Bleachers

Jack Antonoff as a producer is everywhere in the music industry right now. He’s dominating the Grammys, pop’s most stellar acts hanging off his metaphorical and often literal arm: Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, The 1975, Lorde, St Vincent – he’s a very busy guy. But still, he’s found the time to release three albums in ten years as Bleachers, chasing critical and commercial recognition under the stage lights as well as from the wings. In this, Bleachers present a strange proposition: ostensibly a band, but one whose every album features only Antonoff’s image on the cover. A band, too, who do double duty as the backing band for most of Antonoff’s stable of artists. Who are Bleachers, really, and who is Jack Antonoff? There are contradictions knit into the very fabric of Bleachers as an artist proposition, as this fourth, self-titled album unintentionally reveals. What we do know is that mainstream success and critical acclaim has so far largely eluded them. So a lot is riding on “Bleachers”, their first album for the Dirty Hit label and, predictably, considerable industry buzz, as though the album might be the Holy Grail of Antonoff’s secrets. 

Antonoff describes “Bleachers” as about “planting a flag of what the band is at its core”, a process of “shocking yourself and the people around you”. You wonder if he’s describing another album; shocking is the last thing this album is. One of the more generous descriptions of the Antonoff sound is “unwaveringly tasteful”. Elsewhere, his approach has been summed up less kindly as shaving off the quirky and unique features from his artists, moulding them into more or less homogenous shapes. Like almost all creatives who have achieved mass commercial success, Antonoff the producer is not a risk taker. This has benefitted some acts he’s worked with, for example bringing increased focus to the experimental, excess-loving The 1975 on their last studio album „Being Funny In A Foreign Language“. As an artist, however, this quality is Antonoff’s undoing. While every song here sounds pleasant – as an album it’s far from unlistenable– nothing sounds distinctive or vital or like it couldn’t have been done better (and very probably has been) by another artist.

Antonoff has always revelled in nostalgia, romanticising the 80s New Jersey sound. He’s not alone in this, but while artists he’s produced can take that sound and reinvent it to illuminate new or neglected perspectives – such as the subjectivity of millennial womanhood (Swift) or alienation in the age of online communication (The 1975) – Antonoff can only seem to imitate. Opener “I Am Right on Time”, heavily indebted to Bruce Springsteen like so much of Antonoff’s own compositions, fancies itself as a statement of intent but falls flat, all surfaces and shallows. Lead single “Modern Girl” is another noisy and hollow Springsteen imitation, all hooting sax, “woooahhhhh”s and superficial lyrics about “the modern girls shaking their ass tonight” that quickly irritates like someone talking too loudly in a restaurant. It briefly makes you sit up with the unexpectedly self-aware lines “New Jersey’s finest New Yorker/Unreliable reporter/Pop music hoarder/Some guy playing quarters,” a reference to the growing numbers of Antonoff detractors. Antonoff isn’t usually given to this kind of lyrical introspection and it’s welcome. But even when he’s looking inward, he’s still imitating, here sounding a bit too much like Matty Healy on The 1975’s “Part of the Band”, which Antonoff produced.

As the album continues, so too does the sameness. Where Bleachers don’t sound like Springsteen, they sound like Swift (“Me Before You”) or Paul Simon, another New-Jersey-born great revered by Antonoff (“Woke Up Today”, “Hey Joe”) or The 1975 (“Call Me After Midnight”, whose synth melody and lyrics can’t help recalling their superior 2016 single “The Sound”), or landfill indie college radio (“Jesus is Dead”). Or even, on second single “Tiny Moves”, possessed of an irresistibly catchy melody with its repetitive staccato synths, uncannily like acclaimed Gen Z indie artist Dayglow

Some of this might be more forgivable, if Antonoff brought the force of his own personality and perspective to his lyrics, like Swift in particular excels at. But he’s generally either dealing in the banal and even immature, as in the otherwise sonically pleasing, anthemic baroque pop “Self Respect” (“I’m so tired of having self-respect. Let’s do something I’ll regret”), or he’s so opaque that it’s impossible to connect with any ideas or emotions he’s trying to convey.

It’s telling that the album’s high point is the quietly beautiful Lana Del Rey duet “Alma Mater”. Granted, this is largely due to Del Rey’s mesmerising voice. But some of the album’s most ambitious moments are visible here, from Antonoff’s high-pitched vocal effects to the washed-out and distorted production. As a singer, he sounds more confident here too than anywhere else, and it’s a hint of what this album could have been, if Antonoff had been prepared to take more risks with his sound. Ultimately, the impression that “Bleachers” leaves as an album is one of an artist who is at once everywhere and nowhere, telling us he’s pulling us close, but on all evidence much more comfortable hiding behind others, whether that’s surrounding himself with his band or duetting with others or copying the greats of the past rather than innovating.  “I don’t like to be witnessed,” Antonoff has said. “I like to be a part of something.” 

He thinks this is the secret to Springsteen and Simon’s success, but doesn’t seem to compute that the connection they and the artists Antonoff has worked with achieve starts with what they give of themselves. As Steve Gadd said, “People don’t care about music, they care about people.” If you’re not already invested in Jack Antonoff the artist, this album isn’t going to do anything to change that. It’s an album that seems content to be played in the background, rather than demanding your undivided attention and your whole heart the way the best records do. It’s doubtless not the impression Antonoff wants you to have of him, but probably a pretty accurate one. 

„Bleachers“ by Bleachers will be released 8 March 2024.