Talk about overlooked – Passion Pit, the project of Cambridge’s Michael Angelakos, had huge synthpop hits and lit up the the album of the year charts on 2009’s debut LP Manners, then failed to slump on the sophomore followup, 2012’s Gossamer, yet the group’s newest LP has to date only be reviewed by two blogs and has made close to zero waves on the 2017 landscape. That’s likely because it was released for free, on YouTube of all places, and was largely produced, mixed and mastered by Angelakos himself. In a lengthy (and slightly obnoxious) announcement, Angelakos described his process as making something quickly, with human mistakes and errors rather than polished revisions, so that he could show his true, human self. I don’t know how much I buy the excuse of doing something hastily for authenticity’s sake, but nonetheless, Angelakos has put together a solid collection of tracks here, with very cohesive themes and ideas, and I think the project succeeds and even points in the direction of a return to form after 2015’s underwhelming Kindred. It comes as no surprise, however, that the album’s Achilles heel is in the production.
After a swirling and bombastic opener filled with all the typical Passion Pit synths (fun, sprightly, bouncy synth lines in all directions), the album opts for its most ambitious track in the number two position, the six minute “Somewhere Up There”. A three-parter that begins like something off Manners, the album discusses Angelakos’ depression and insecurity regarding his divorce (and subsequent public coming out), a recurring theme in Passion Pit music. The opening passage is catchy and dynamic, but the vocal take is rough and could have used with some cleaner production or the chorus effect that Angelakos likes to frequent on his melodies. But unmistakable is the emotion in his voice, and I think the abrupt switch up halfway through to a soaring half-time track with crescendoing vocals works. I even think the two spoken word passages (one from Angelakos’ mentor and another in the form of a voicemail from his mother) play into the deeply personal songwriting the album is going for.
The album’s front side continues the hot streak, with both “Hey K” (another divorce track, this time sung to Angelakos’ ex-wife directly) and “You Have the Right” being cut from the same cloth as Gossamer’s R&B-tinged standout “Constant Conversations“. The vocals are clear and crisp, and the slower tempos, clicks and soft synthesizers providing a cushion to the jagged edges of the first two tracks. I do think the album loses some steam by opting to sequence the instrumental title track, a four minute ambient piece that resembles the waves on the record’s cover, at the halfway point, clearly breaking the album into two distinct movements.
The B side boasts the biggest issues with production. The chopped-up and glitchy “Inner Dialogue” is a mess, neither catchy nor pleasant, and “I’m Perfect”, which is filled with energy and features an excellent chorus, suffers from the same demo-quality production that haunts the entire record. Passion Pit music is so dense and bombastic that it benefits more than most genres from crystal clear vocals and synths, and the quick mixing that Angelakos went for truly is a detriment on songs like this. The eighth- and ninth-sequenced “The Undertow” and “To the Otherside”, while solid and featuring good melodies and piano/keyboard riffs, fail to really get big or go in as hard as you’d like, as hard as Angelakos did on Manners favorites “Make Light” and “Sleepyhead“. The record ends with the largely instrumental “For Sondra (It Means the World To Me)”, a swelling instrumental that ends with a bare, raw acoustic guitar and voice take that features the record’s most intimate lyrics (“But mother you knew / Your love kept on hurting me / But you’re my family / Why would you?”). It’s an appropriate ending to a cohesive, thematic and personal record.
Tremendous Sea has a few really good tracks and I think the low-stakes project succeeds in what it was shooting for. But excellent LP this is not, partially because it’s quite short (36 minutes, including two instrumental tracks), and partially because a couple of the tracks are weak, but mostly because it sounds like a demo. The extra flourishes, vocal harmonies, solos, layering and impressive production touches that other Passion Pit records relish in are largely absent, leaving us with a relatively stripped back collection of songs from a project that built itself on over-the top maximalism. Still, this record is proof that Angelakos can still write great Passion Pit songs, and it instills hope that the next LP could move the band back in the direction of their creative peak.
Score: 8 / 13