Chances are that if you were pop-sentient in the late 2000s you can remember how you felt when you first heard Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead.” Perhaps you can even remember where you were. The combined components of the song still feels a little alien and unprecedented, from the Jack Kerouac quote that loops industrially during the intro to the glimmering, diced-to-bits melody, which sounds more suited for a Tumblr generation remake of Fantasia than battling for chart position with David Guetta and Taio Cruz, to Michael Angelakos’s vocals, so high-pitched and hopped up on emotion it’s hard to even detect the melody. Nothing on “Sleepyhead” is wholly unfamiliar to the savvy listener, but the way that the elements are assembled feels endearingly off-kilter, like you gave someone the tools to make a great pop song but they’d never heard one themselves.
It’s hard to believe that single is eight years old, conceived as part of an EP Angelakos gave to an old girlfriend as a make-up present, and in the ensuing time Passion Pit has become a gleaming pop obelisk capable of headlining festivals and convincing you that Doritos Locos Tacos are a good idea. They’ve churned out three records (their latest, Kindred, was received a touch more coolly than the previous two), and have reached the point where traces of their gleaming maximalist sound is detectable in many rising synth pop outfits and aspiring electronic producers.
Groups like Misterwives and Magic Man have found success on the more instrumental side of Passion Pit’s live-programmed dance pop nexus, while producers such as Madeon and Lemaitre have refined their own takes on the sunny sound. Mainstream electronic music has embraced a harsher, trap-tinged style that feels fundamentally at odds with Angelakos’ syrupy, heart-on-the-sleeve soul, and some careful SoundCloud digging will still unearth plenty of nascent talents who share the group’s Technicolor palate. All of which begs the question: What makes Passion Pit special in 2016?
Firstly, Angelakos still knows how to pack as much as possible into a soundscape without making a song that bursts at the seams or buckles under its own weight. In 2014, he co-produced Ryn Weaver’s jaw-dropping “OctaHate,” a breathless three-minute out-of-body experience complete with xylophones, thunderous bass kicks, subtle muted guitars, and stadium-sized synths that remains one of the most spirited pop debuts in recent memory. His work on Kindred feels more subject to current trends than the timeless Gossamer, but it’s still beautifully realized and lush. The Passion Pit oeuvre has matured since Manners, and if it isn’t as instantaneously satiating now it offsets that by offering even more nooks and hidden corners to explore.
Sonically, he’s managed to expand the group’s sound while still making it feel personal and intimate – Passion Pit’s music still sounds like bedroom pop if it were recorded in Buckingham Palace. Plenty of acts can mimic the highest highs of Angelakos’s production, but where they falter are the quieter moments: a choice bit of vinyl fuzz here, a drawn-out piano chord there, things that remind you this music comes from people, not Willy Wonka’s secret machine. Even on something as massive and anthemic as “Lifted Up (1985)” you can still hear the tick of drumsticks on the verse. Often when groups that start out as novel as Passion Pit (think MGMT or Young the Giant) reach the mainstream they either go too far trying to do something different or stay completely static, but Angelakos has guided the growth of his group expertly.
Still, perhaps the most important factor in Passion Pit’s continued relevance is that their trademark euphoria has always been couched by a commitment to say something substantive. So much of their music exists in multiple realms; you can take it as pure sugar or you can parse it for its nutritional value, which is almost always rewarding but occasionally difficult to stomach. “Take a Walk” works just as well as the track that gets you through the last stretch of your morning workout as a goosebump-inducing story of immigrants trying to live the American dream and the strife that its pursuit brings. “Constant Conversations” pairs synths that could soundtrack a seaside sunset with a harrowing message about the destructive cycle of alcoholism. These are songs that can keep you up at night pensively alone in your room, but even with their heavy messages you can always shout along to them at a concert or a party, gleefully ignorant of the meaning.
For more proof of the power of Passion Pit, just look at the cover for Kindred: it’s direct, and a touch cheesy, but you can’t stare into that kid’s eyes for 30 seconds without feeling something, whether you’re filling in the emotional gaps of the scene or projecting your own childhood. That’s the enduring power of Passion Pit. In an era where minimalism has become the new cool, they’ve embraced a slightly dated aesthetic rather than putting their own spin on what’s hot on SoundCloud. What’s paramount for Angelakos and co. has never been ubiquity or perpetual relevance, it’s making you feel something, but whether that’s pure joy at the soaring synths or sober appreciation of Angelakos’ characters is firmly up to you.
See for yourself when Passion Pit headlines our Fall Classic on October 8th. More information can be found here.