Note: My references to lead singer Michael Angelakos’ ongoing battle with mental illness come from this superb article from Pitchfork—Rite of Passion. Hearing his story gives Gossamer an added urgency and depth; be forewarned, however, the article is not for the faint of heart, as it deals quite frankly with these issues.
Maybe due to its frenzied electronic backdrop or lead singer Michael Angelakos’ piercing falsetto, Passion Pit’s inaugural 2009 album Manners didn’t seem like much more than another, albeit fantastic, indie-pop dance album at the time of its release. In fact, I remember dancing to several of the songs at a school function in 2010, most notably “Sleepyhead” and “Little Secrets,” and having a great time. Yet on repeated listens, Manners revealed itself as more complex and emotionally nuanced than I initially gave it credit for, an impression which is only confirmed by the band’s latest record, Gossamer. Shaped by Angelakos’ ongoing battle with mental illness, Gossamer is much darker, musically and lyrically, than Manners, the result being a more mature album, full of insight into human struggle which ultimately becomes a beautiful story of the redemptive, forgiving power of love.
Even from the first minute of the album’s first single, “Take a Walk,” the band’s evolution is apparent: gone, for the most part, is Angelakos’ falsetto, and the band’s music is far less frantic and busy than it had been on Manners. “Take a Walk” still relies on certain staples of dance music and Passion Pit’s sound—a resounding four-on-the-floor bass drum, airy background vocals, and infectious pop-hooks—but it combines them in a way as to highlight Angelakos’ lyrics, rather than mask them. On Gossamer the lyrics are a vital component to the album’s overall feel and progression, often achingly autobiographical as on “Constant Conversations”: “I never wanna hurt you baby/ I’m just a mess with a name and a price/ And now I’m drunker than before/ They told me drinking doesn’t make me nice.” Musically, “Constant Conversations” matches its weighty subject matter, forgoing the spastic electronic touches for a simple, restrained drum beat and layers of background vocals which allow Angelakos’ observations on himself and his relationships to come to the forefront. Gossamer wisely dials back the production somewhat, giving the record a more balanced vibe than Manners, treating its subject matter with respect and aplomb.
This isn’t to say that those who loved Manners are left without anything that resembles the dynamic force of the band’s first major release, as songs like “I’ll Be Alright,” “Mirrored Sea,” and “Hideaway” carry on the torch from Manners, although their darker lyrics give them a different resonance. “I’ll Be Alright” is Gossamer’s successor to “Sleepyhead,” a glorious mess of synths, drums, and vocals that somehow meld together to create a fascinating, hyperactive roller-coaster romp through Angelakos’ mind—“I’m so self-loathing that it’s hard for me to see reality from what I dream…my brain is wasting and I feel like I’ll explode.” Likewise, “Mirrored Sea” and its upbeat, driving sound disguise a deeply battered and disturbed psyche that comes through in the lyrics, “Mirrored sea, your waves are haunting me, oh mirrored sea, let me be.” The juxtaposition of these sorts of lyrics with, by all accounts, happy music only serves to make Gossamer a more intriguing listen.
Yet, even with all the references to substances and mental illness, the album begins to turn toward redemption with a pair of songs at its center: “Cry Like a Ghost” and “On My Way.” The distorted bass that undergirds “Cry Like a Ghost” reflects the distorted state of Angelakos’ life, as, after another night of drinking, he realizes he needs a change—“But as my body crumbled/ You walked as I just stumbled/ We spoke only of things made in my head/ You never once controlled me/ What all the others told me/ But if I kept on going I’d be dead.” As the song fades with some static and whispery noises, it morphs into “On My Way,” beginning with the lilting touch of a piano, driving away the distortion of “Cry Like a Ghost.” The song gradually builds upon itself, introducing new sounds and textures throughout, especially in the horn-filled chorus, which incorporates nicely into the song’s more optimistic tone. Singing to his fiancée, Angelakos belts, “Kristina, all these demons I can beat them,” before launching into a proclamation which I can only describe as a prayer—“Consecrate this messy love.”
However, it is Gossamer’s final track, “Where We Belong,” that encapsulates the album’s story, ending it with an incredible moment of grace. Over a shifting musical backdrop, Angelakos relates the story of an attempted suicide, which he miraculously escaped from, “And then I’m lifted up/ Out of the crimson tub/ …from the floor he prays away all my pain.” Speaking to Pitchfork, he gave this explanation, “I envisioned the archangel Gabriel lifting me up,” a moment echoed in the song when he screams out Gabriel’s name right before the song transforms from a moody, down-tempo piece into a climatic explosion of vocals and drums. It’s one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard this year, simply for its ability to strike a primal chord within me that reaffirms my need for the same kind of grace and love that Angelakos is able to illustrate by singing about his own pain and struggle. In Gossamer, Passion Pit has created a truly moving work of art, an expression of raw humanity and brokenness, as well as a reminder that life will always be a battle, but grace and love are real and may very well come to the rescue when least expected.