Michael Angelakos, the 25-year-old producer and front man of Passion Pit, planned to leap to his death from an overpass on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in June, about a month before the release of his band's excellent second album, Gossamer. He was thwarted by a doctor who noticed his irregular behavior while attempting to refill a prescription, and was admitted to a mental health facility in upstate New York. Despite this, Passion Pit are set to play the biggest headlining show of their career at New York's Madison Square Garden in February. The difficult journey from the rock-bottom low of a suicide attempt to the screaming high of booking a date at the world's most famous arena is a testament to both the courage of Angelakos and the quality of Gossamer, an album that fearlessly explores similar highs and lows, and glows with the joy, despair, and ultimate relief of creation.
Gossamer makes frequent and effective use of the contrast between bouncy, lush arrangements and deeply personal, emotionally weighty confessions. The album's first track, "Take a Walk," wraps the story of generations of struggling Angelakos patriarchs with a boisterous, giddy stomp and zippy synths. "I'll Be Alright" and "Constant Conversations," two other highlights, are pitch-perfect explorations of sugar-rush pop and blue-eyed soul inspired by a particularly trying period during the album's gestation.
Angelakos' lyrics are lent additional heft by the revelations that formed the core of a stunning Pitchfork feature in July, cobbled together by Larry Fitzmaurice over several lengthy interviews and weeks of communication, and published just prior to the release of Gossamer. In the article, Angelakos discussed his experience living with bipolar disorder, from his diagnosis at age 18 to subsequent suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and bouts of mania. The aforementioned trying period that shaped several choice Gossamer cuts was, in fact, a lengthy manic episode. The album's sweeping closing track, "Where We Belong," is partially built around references to a near-fatal suicide attempt while attending Emerson College in 2006.
Angelakos' leap into the public eye and to the forefront of mental-illness awareness represented a huge risk, both personally and for his band's upcoming album. Gossamer's sales performance and critical response were especially pivotal, given the band's opportunity to break out of the indie stratosphere and reach casual listeners lurking in the pop heartland. And although, in a perfect world, an album's quality and ensuing reception would be entirely separated from its creators' personal struggles and media presence, Angelakos ran the risk of pegging Gossamer as "the manic album" or "the bipolar album," instead of "the breakout album." Like many other artists, Angelakos wants to be considered and evaluated strictly on the merits of his art, not the context of its creation. Fitzmaurice summarized this sentiment in his Pitchfork feature: "His disorder is part of who he is, but he doesn't want it to define him." But easier said than done.
Angelakos may not want to write bipolar songs, or mental illness songs, or manic-depressive songs. He seeks to chronicle the confusion that stems from love, loss, and exploring the darkest parts of yourself, and that's universal.
And yet, in the weeks and months since sharing himself with the world, Angelakos has done an admirable job of serving as a public figurehead for mental illness without compromising or affecting his artistic output. Passion Pit canceled several shows to accommodate a medical procedure and support his well-being, but they were rescheduled without much fanfare, and the band proceeded on tour with nary a bump in the road. Through his Twitter account, Angelakos engages with fans in a direct, honest fashion that other artists would do well to learn from. He hosts lengthy Q&A sessions, praises the band's fan base as the best in the world, and responds to personal queries with unflinching honesty. He quietly contributes to mental-health awareness efforts in a way that feels uncontrived and borne of personal meaning, retweeting links to suicide help sites and mental-health awareness pages on Facebook and illuminating shreds of his own personal experience.
In one particularly heartbreaking instance, a fan tweeted at Angelakos to inform him that she was considering committing suicide in the manner described in "Where We Belong." He responded quickly, urging her to seek medical attention.
It may not seem noteworthy, one person showing compassion to another in need, but the quick exchange is given meaning by our knowledge of Angelakos' own experience. Through his everyday interactions, he has balanced the twin roles of artist and advocate without compromising either stance, a tightrope act worthy of recognition.
Of course, the prominence of that balancing act would be diminished if it weren't for the merit of Gossamer. Along with its incredible consistency and sticky-sweet hooks, one of the album's greatest strengths is its status as a singular creation: no matter the stylistic variation from song to song, from recycled Jay Electronica beats to glitch-warped warbling choruses, Gossamer is a unified artistic statement clearly derived from a single mind. The journey of that brilliant, inescapably human mind from the brink of the BQE to a headlining slot just a few miles away at MSG made for one of the year's most compelling stories and one of its finest records.
Jamieson Cox is an engineering student at the University of Waterloo, and has written for One Week One Band, Pitchfork, Prefix and The Singles Jukebox.