Passion Pit leader Michael Angelakos is a deeply troubled man. He is a deeply troubled man who has attempted suicide and finds it difficult to cope with his mental illness. He is a deeply troubled man who happens to craft some of the catchiest pop music of the past five years.
His public battles with bipolar disorder have been well-documented, most notably in an unflinching, heartbreaking profile on Pitchfork. In the article, he speaks openly — to a disarming degree — about a suicide attempt and the battles he continues to fight today. One harrowing passage in an article full of them is cause for concern:
“I’ve told people that I don’t see myself living very long,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “That really upsets them, but I’m just being honest.”
Angelakos canceled tour dates on two occasions this summer, citing the need to address his continuing mental health troubles. With all of the uncertainty surrounding his band and his inner turmoil, I was unsure of what to expect from Passion Pit on the final day of Bumbershoot. A disinterested, disengaged lead singer? A euphoric live act? Neither would have surprised me, yet I came away from the evening dumbfounded by the overwhelming exuberance.
I got my first glimpse when Passion Pit performed a secret, semi-acoustic set for local radio station KEXP that afternoon. The intimate performance featured subdued takes on the bouncy pop sound that has earned Passion Pit a devoted and energetic fan base. “Sleepyhead,” one of the set’s highlights, was stripped of its swirling synths and urgent vocals; in their place, a stripped-down sound revealed an undeniable attention to craftsmanship and songwriting. Angelakos clearly worked hard to make it sound so easy.
“Take a Walk,” in any other context, would be a crowd-pleasing romp. In this setting — a 275-seat converted theater — the slower sound, stripped of its bombast, was disarming in its immediacy. As far as Passion Pit songs go, “Take a Walk” feels impersonal; the almost-acoustic performance made it feel as intimate as the most personal tracks in the band’s discography.
Generally, Passion Pit delivers a “big” sound, full of dance-floor-friendly melodies and charging electronic sounds. It’s easy to forget that Angelakos is nakedly documenting his inner struggles through the lyrics, which juxtapose beautifully — and devastatingly — with the sugary sweet beats. But without the complex layers of music creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts, what’s left are subtly brilliant pop songs and Angelakos’ devastating lyrics. In such an intimate setting, those lyrics took center stage; the result was a haunting, yet beautiful, half hour.
It was enough to make me reconsider my evening plans, which — until that point — had been to see Rebirth Brass Band for the umpteenth time while missing out on Passion Pit’s plugged-in set. I consulted my buddy/life coach Ray, who heartily endorsed Passion Pit. It was a prescient call; that night, I was treated to the deliriously boisterous side of Passion Pit and gained yet another appreciation for the band’s sound and style.
Take the band’s blistering “I’ll Be Alright.” Pianos and stuttering electronic glitches kick off the fast-paced track before giving way to Angelakos’ downtrodden lyrics. On balance, it feels uplifting and victorious; Angelakos sounds like he’s barreling down the freeway on a cloudless day, pressing the gas pedal in concert with the blistering beat, not a care in the world. But the song’s first lines cast a pall: “Can you remember ever having any fun / ’cause when it’s all said and done / I always believed we were / But now I’m not so sure.” Hardly the stuff road trips are made of.
On a computer or through a set of headphones, the lyrics are jarring and unnerving; rather, they would be, if not for the poppy “oh oh ohs” that pepper the track, giving it an undeniable pop sheen. (Never mind that the next lyrics are “I’ll drink a gin and take a couple of my pills.”) The fast-paced electronic sound, near-constant falsetto, and sing-song quality of the choruses make it easy to sweep the lyrical context under the rug.
And in concert, no one put any thought into the trauma and turmoil that went into the lyrics. Everyone in attendance — your favorite blogger included — spent the set dancing wildly and uncontrollably, jumping up and down, and waving their arms in the air. The exuberant dancing started with the opening notes of “Take a Walk” and didn’t let up until the house lights came on after set-closing “Little Secrets.” The energy in between never wavered; it was as enthusiastic as any crowd I’ve ever been a part of.
Those unnerving lyrics somehow morphed into triumphant, declarative sing-alongs in concert. “I’ll Be Alright” is about someone who’s resigned to losing the love of their life and who’s trying to convince themselves that they’ll “be alright.” The lyrics, as they read on the page, are crushing; in concert, however, a few thousand gleefully cried out “I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright” as if they were capping off a triumphant self-help seminar. An otherwise heartbreaking song turned into a life-affirming declaration.
That bizarre juxtaposition made clear the case for Passion Pit as one of the most compelling bands in pop music today. When a band makes music so transparently poppy, fast-paced, and danceable as Passion Pit, it would stand to reason that the accompanying lyrics would follow suit. At worst, the lyrics might be ambiguous or occasionally depressing. But Angelakos’ lyrics are unrelenting in their bleakness, frustration, and depression. There’s no escape from the darkness, not even in the summery sounds and catchy choruses. Storm clouds are marring whatever sunshine that might be on the horizon.
It’s that wholly unique mix of style and substance that has captivated millions worldwide. It scrambles my brain to think too long about the strange crossroads at which Passion Pit crafts its music; I can scarcely listen without tapping my feet or nodding my head, even as Angelakos sings about unbelievably depressing topics. The subject matter — self-doubt and heartbreak — isn’t exactly uncharted territory. But the way it’s delivered defies convention or easy categorization. The skittering beats and occasionally anthemic choruses wouldn’t sound out of place on any dance floor in the world.
But what elevates Passion Pit is the painstaking attention to detail, whether it’s a well-placed musical flourish or the wildly personal nature of its lyrics. Angelakos doesn’t trade style for substance; he marries the two in a complex, beautiful package. Better lyrics have been written, but few have been written by such high-profile musicians, and even fewer have been so intensely, nakedly personal.
As far as front men go, Angelakos more than held his own through both sets. In the intimate setting, he cracked wise about playing an acoustic set with keyboards and plugged-in instruments. In front of thousands, he developed a rapport with the crowd through sing-alongs and constant movement. He didn’t exactly smile often, but he seemed lost in the music at times and fully engaged throughout the set. A little awkward, sure. But you’ve seen more awkward. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the overwhelmingly positive response to the set.
The pair of sets on Monday were revelatory. The acoustic set revealed the depths of Angelakos’ songwriting talents and gift for heart-wrenching lyrics. The evening performance showcased the band’s bombastic pop sensibilities and ethereal stage presence. The contrasting sets were two sides of the same coin. Individually, each facet of the band’s performances showed glimpses of what makes Passion Pit one of the most exciting acts in music today. Taken together, they revealed an uncommonly thoughtful band that delivers an unusual and delicate mix of pop sheen, thoughtful lyrics, and intricate musicianship.
I just hope that, at some point after the performance, Angelakos got some peace of mind. If only for a few minutes. Dude deserves it.