Artist: Passion Pit
So far, when I’ve praised pop songwriters (e.g. Jon Lindsay) on this countdown, I’ve centered the praise on artists who, like the Beatles or XTC or Elvis Costello, produce unexpected melodies: songs that recombine the basic 12 notes in ways that feel catchy but are somehow new. Passion Pit don’t really do that. I’ll grant them I’ll Be Alright and Carried Away, and parts of Love is Greed and Where We Belong, but most of the tunes on Gossamer move your basic step-by-step, except in the transitional leap from verse to chorus. If, as I claim, it’s a special album, it comes down to arrangements: instrumental and vocal. The instrumentation (mainly the synthesizer sound envelopes) is inventive and intriguing. The vocals on the verses, by Michael Angelakos, are strong and clear-voiced but ordinary (and enhanced quite a bit, I think, by doubling and multiple takes). The chorus vocals, often en-masse, are as shameless as any jingle-writer ever conceived. In context, I am claiming, that’s a very *good* thing.
The instrumentation is crucial to that context. The hook on I’ll Be Alright is as creative, obtrusive, and in-your-face as anything by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, but as adoring as a puppy, and it leads to a firm disco beat that, like the very best of original disco, races us past dozens of shiny sound effects, with just enough time to goggle at each before being swept along. Take a Walk, Carried Away, and others are the sort of danceable mainstream ’80s synth-rock celebrated in John Hughes movie soundtracks, with multiple hooks, sighing counterpoint, and a playing-up of the artifice of the sounds their keyboards make possible. Constant Conversations is moody modern R&B, unsettling in how none of the instruments’ attack/decay patterns sound at all natural (until string pizzicato near the end), and with brief, cleverly alien-sounding uses of pitch-correction. Cry Like a Ghost is spooky and spare on its verses, the abandoned remains of a Giorgio Moroder Eurodisco hit, but makes good use of a hook/sample that sounds at once like gangsta mice and Middle Eastern prayer music. Hideaway acquires an illusion of subtlety by having the first minute seem to filter in from a cathedral over a bad phone connection. Love is Greed mostly sounds like Christmas music with a redeemingly peppy beat, but is introduced by 33 seconds of odd yet lovely a-capella vocoder duet. Where We Belong flutters along on almost holy-sounding oscillations and hidden, scuffling drum machine.
Lyrics are probably crucial to the context. Gossamer is largely messages from the inside of a failing romance, marked by verbal fights, earnest and no-more-pleasant attempts at reconciliation, bouts of self-loathing, and frequent inquires into why the other person doesn’t just give up. If closing track Where We Belong is the closet thing to a love song, and the final lyric is “All I’ve ever wanted was to be happy and make you proud”, even it still gets there by way of “Who says you ought to stay? How’s this the easier way? It’s far from giving up. Cowards never say ‘Enough is enough'”. It matters because *real* Christmas jingles at the mall don’t say “Someday we’ll all agree, it’s not worth making/ another person that is yours for the taking … Love is just greed, it’s selfish and mean/ It follows all you lead/ if we really love ourselves, how do you love somebody else?”. (Although you wouldn’t think commercials would be able to use Take a Walk, the outward-focused lyric here, a six-verse three-generation tale of the disappointments of the American Dream. Taco Bell’s marketers still decided “This is perfect!”)
The choruses of Take a Walk and Love is Greed and I’ll Be Alright have gone through my head this past year as much as those of any other three songs; the context allows me to be glad of it. Passion Pit muster the full force of group vocals, assertive production, easy but not-too-easy melody, and repetition short of the point of unbearability to drive them home: they have no mercy. Their songs are selfish little memes.
Susan Blackmore wrote a fascinating non-fiction book called the Meme Machine, based on Richard Dawkins’s tossed-off concept of the “meme”, which he meant as metaphor and analogy to genes: ideas as evolutionary devices. Memes might be moral principles or jokes; poems or just half-remembered lines; logos or concepts like “flying saucers of little green men who abducted me”; cooking techniques or fragments of song. Blackmore’s case is that memes *literally* evolve — anything that makes imperfect copies of itself, some copies of which are better-suited to survive and reproduce than others, literally evolves, and human brains are an environment. She further argues — and outlines several experiments to test the notion with — that human brains have evolved to be better and better meme-spreaders. The result is that while The Ability To Sell Other People On Memes helps an individual mate and raise healthy offspring (and so our species gets smarter and cannier and wordier), the memes themselves — which produce everything from laughter to religious awe to sex discrimination to suicide — don’t need to serve anything but their own ability to spread, as they evolve at the speed of viruses. There may, for example, be no genetic explanation for music at all: once human brains got capable of producing the first eight notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, they were simply an available environment for those ruthless eight notes to breed in.
Passion Pit‘s Gossamer is a small masterpiece of viral melody. I rate it highly because I enjoy the symptoms. I recommend it to you because, it turns out, my brain makes a handy transmitter to hijack.
– Brian Block