It’s 2014 and our planet is burning through fossil fuels, Arctic ice and decent band names.
Yes, certain shortages are more dire than others, but a good band name still matters. Especially if your name is Jack Antonoff, guitarist of the Grammy-winning rock band fun., who next week will release the debut album from his new solo project, Bleachers.
The music is pretty good, and the name is pretty great — a romantic moniker evocative of teenage make-out spots, or high school tribes with platinum hair, or, if you squish them together, peroxide punks smooching in secret.
Antonoff — a brunet with birth-control glasses — says that Bleachers gives him the opportunity to write bloody-heart-on-sleeve rock songs. And so the 11-song album, “Strange Desire,” finds the 30-year-old time-traveling to the early 1980s, a time when the melodrama of Journey and the Psychedelic Furs may not have been all that dissimilar. It’s unabashed, nostalgic stuff, and according to Antonoff, deeply personal.
But if these songs were by “Jack Antonoff,” would anyone care?
To go solo in rock-and-roll, the name Mom and Dad gave you probably won’t cut it. Look at all of the frontmen who have dared to branch out in recent years without a nom-de-rock: Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Brandon Flowers of the Killers, Paul Banks of Interpol, Kele Okereke of Bloc Party and, most recently, Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen. Can you hum a tune from any of their respective solo recordings? Did you bother to listen to them in the first place?
Going it alone betrays the ancient precept that rock-and-roll is a collective art. We love rock stars, but we respect them when they’re part of a constellation. Going solo under your own name smacks of ego-tripping, while adopting a bandesque name connotes authority and significance. We prefer Nine Inch Nails to Trent Reznor, St. Vincent to Annie Clark, Bon Iver to Justin Vernon.
But the name game plays out differently in different genres. In country music and hip-hop — two worlds that run parallel more often than not — extracurricular endeavors often manifest as duets and guest turns. There’s no reason to retreat into your deeper, alternate self when you could be out there expanding your brand.
In electronic music, great attention is paid to the lines that separate micro-genres, inspiring artists to assume different aliases for different styles. Matthew Dear got his start making clinical dance music, but he has pursued various techno dialects as Audion, Jabberjaw and False. Among the rising EDM generation, there’s 23-year-old Henry Steinway, who makes riotous trap music as RL Grime and oversize house anthems under the name Clockwork.
These splintering musical identities stem from the postmodern idea that artists can — and maybe should — do it all.
Back in the ’80s, the work of Arthur Russell, a cellist who wrote country ballads, disco cuts and dreamy avant-pop ditties, felt like a harbinger of polymaths to come. In “Wild Combination,” a documentary about Russell’s life, music critic David Toop describes why musicians like Russell used to be so rare: “Not many people allow themselves the full extent of their complexity.”
With Bleachers, Antonoff might not be exploring the deepest depths of his complexity, but he is doing his best to reconcile new wave sleekness and the unapologetic wallop of the emo-punk he grew up on. By multi-tracking his vocals, it doesn’t sound like a solo turn so much as an army of Antonoffs emptying their hearts and lungs.
It works well on the album’s first single, “I Wanna Get Better,” a stuttering power ballad about growing up and freaking out. Other times, he pushes it. “Like a River Runs” sounds like it was written for a Reagan-era prom and, when the chorus kicks in, a teen-flick pep rally.
As a Jack Antonoff song, it might read as excessive, ostentatious, embarrassingly overblown. Because it’s a Bleachers song, you might catch yourself singing along.