Note: It’s relevant to this review to clarify that I am specifically reviewing the version of this album currently available on US Spotify as of 8/1/17. This album has been released multiple times already with different track lists and track lengths. I believe that the progression of this album is important to its impact, and I would be happy to provide the full track list for the version I am reviewing if anyone should request it.
I’ve historically been a huge Passion Pit fan. Their music is underrated in the pop world and Michael Angelakos is a true “indie” artist. His first EP Chunk of Change was originally a love letter to his girlfriend at the time that got popular around his college campus. After “Sleepyhead” blew up and Manners released Passion Pit took off. His success was not something he asked for, it’s something he earned by writing great music. Struggling with depression and bipolar disorder, Passion Pit hit an artistic peak with their second album Gossamer – an all-time favorite for me. Gossamer was a special project, mixing absolutely fantastic diverse pop instrumentation with heartbreaking lyrics straight from Michael’s heart and mind. Michael hit his self-proclaimed “worst patch” touring for Gossamer. After disappearing briefly from the public eye, he returned after coming out as gay and going through a subsequent divorce as a much happier and stable man. Passion Pit’s third album Kindred then came out that same year (2015) and remained sonically consistent to their other work but was criticized heavily for its simplistic lyrics and lack of overall diversity. It was somewhat unsettling to watch critics blast Michael’s first artistic statement borne from happiness and stability, but they were right. Kindred, even if it was created during a happier time for Michael, was really lacking in the emotional connection that has always been so present in other Passion Pit albums.
Enter A Tremendous Sea of Love, the album that was never even meant to be. Earlier this year Michael teased that he had new music to put out, and Passion Pit fans assumed they were b-sides or previously unreleased material. After a sloppy launch cycle including Michael sending download links to Twitter followers and a number of tracklist changes and tweaks, we’ve got a new Passion Pit album.
I am providing all this information on the background of Passion Pit because it is central to theme of A Tremendous Sea of Love and Passion Pit itself has become as much about the music as the story of Michael Angelakos. On this new album, we see one of the most diverse, sonically engaging, experimental, and balanced versions of Passion Pit we have seen so far. Michael has broadened his horizons. He manages to continue to write fantastic pop melodies, but has woven in elements of ambient music and glitch pop. His songwriting here at some times is so clearly written for himself or a specific person that it can be difficult to connect to, but there are a few songs here that are lyrically near the top of his whole discography. Unfortunately, these great strides made by Michael and Passion Pit come at a cost. It’s clear that this album still needed time for a little extra care. The production is average at best, and there are a few songs where the mixing is so poorly done that it ruins the song. Furthermore, this is a brief album that feels even shorter because of a few filler-y songs near the end. You can actually pinpoint the exact moment where Michael falls right back into his comfort zone and sounds like he is back in 2011. With a little more time, I think A Tremendous Sea of Love could have been Passion Pit’s best project. As it is, I can still say this: it’s very good.
A Tremendous Sea of Love surges off the starting line with an outstanding series of 5 tracks that specifically showcase the change in sound I discussed above. “Moonbeam” is a quick, effective, exciting opener. “Somewhere Up There” is placed appropriately in the album as it prepares the listener for what is to come. This is a three-part track that Michael has said is supposed to be representative of how his panic attacks feel in the form of a song. This track is fantastic in both its construction and sound. It blends the classic Passion Pit formula with the new glitch and ambient sounds right off the bat and all three “acts” in this track are fantastic. “Somewhere Up There” is a union between the new and the old and it exists to assure the listener that Michael knows now who he is, where he has been, and where he is going. The next track, “Hey K”, explodes out of the ashes of “Somewhere Up There” and it’s the clear highlight of the album. I’ll get more into the production in a minute, but “Hey K” is clearly the most well-produced song of the bunch and it’s carried forward with a brilliant melody and emotional, heartfelt lyrics in the form of a letter to Michael’s ex-wife. “Hey K” passes the torch to “To The Other Side”, which plays like a love letter from Michael to himself. A hopeful, driving piano piece moves the song forward as Michael tells the listener again and again that he has finally “made it to the other side”. It becomes an overwhelmingly emotional experience to have this blend of lyrical, sonic, emotional, and mental growth all in one package. This combination has only continued to develop for me as I’ve explored A Tremendous Sea of Love. The growth in the music itself provides authenticity to the growth Michael claims he has experienced in the lyrics. The final song in this brilliant first half is the title track: a gorgeous and soaring ambient piece. It fits in beautifully after the four tracks preceding it and offers something to the album that we have not seen from Passion Pit before: patience. A common criticism of their other albums is that they can be exhausting listens packed with full, demanding pop songs. “A Tremendous Sea of Love” opens up the album to the listener in a way that expands the overall emotional connection to the music rather than limiting it.
I try to avoid reviewing in a song by song manner, but I could not help but to go through the first half of this album in this way because of how fantastic I find the melodies, the lyrics, the new sonic directions, and the overall atmosphere of that first half. The problems with this album begin with “I’m Perfect” (ironically). This track is simultaneously the first track where I feel like the production starts to affect my perception of the music and also where Michael slips back into some of his old, more tired ideas. (The duality between the sound of this song and the somewhat darker lyrics make me think that this particular track might actually be a Gossamer extra). “I’m Perfect” and “Inner Dialogue” are both propelled forward by loud electronic drums that were just mixed terribly. I actually think “Inner Dialogue” in particular has some cool ideas, but these tracks are mixed so badly it is actually tough to listen to them. For the purposes of reviewing them, I had to turn the volume way down from what I was comfortable with with the rest of the album and I still felt a little distracted and annoyed by the graininess in the drums.
Even for the well-mixed songs in the second half like “You Have the Right” and “For Sondra”, Michael is clearly running out of innovation. These are both solid tracks, but the former is essentially a knock-off version of “Constant Conversations” from Gossamer and the latter sounds similar to “To The Other Side” built to be a crescendo rather than a poppy song. I am nitpicking a little here; I actually do enjoy both of these songs but it feels a bit abrupt to hear the album repeat sonic themes present on other Passion Pit songs, especially with how fresh the first half of the album sounds. With how short A Tremendous Sea of Love is, these tracks and the others in the second half bring down the overall ceiling that this album could have had. I already wish the album were longer, so it’s disappointing that a handful of the tracks we do have here sound repetitive in the big picture. It is also difficult to emotionally connect to the lyrics in the latter half of the album. It is evident that this album is deeply personal to Michael, but some of these tracks in the second half seem so specifically addressed to one person that it is hard for the listener to connect. Apart from the tracks that are mixed poorly, I don’t feel like the songs in the second half of the album are “bad”, but they don’t compare to the first half.
Nonetheless, the primary tangible complaint I have with this album is the production. It pops up over and over again. The graininess that completely threw me off of “I’m Perfect” and “Inner Dialogue” is also present in “Somewhere Up There” at points. “To The Other Side”, despite all of its emotional impact, should have a cleaner sounding piano and the levels are off between Michael’s voice and the instrumentation. “Hey K” and “You Have the Right” are clearly the most album-ready songs on this album from a production standpoint, and if you’re exploring Passion Pit for the first time or are sensitive to poor production, I’d start there. Again, the production is a non-issue at points, but it’s noticeable on a handful of tracks and particularly bad on more than one. When I first started exploring A Tremendous Sea of Love to try to find the overall theme of the album, I considered justifying the noisiness of the production as a means for Michael to further describe the noisiness of his mental illness (similar to the theme in my Japanese Breakfast review). Yet, after multiple listens, I simply can’t make that leap. Whether it was intended or not, it sounds too bad too often for me to even feel neutral about it. This album would have greatly benefited from improved production.
With that said, A Tremendous Sea of Love is still a great effort from Passion Pit and Michael Angelakos. It brings classic Passion Pit sounds together with new glitch pop and ambient elements. The first half of the album (apart from some production issues) is essentially perfect, and my primary gripe with the second half is that it basically can’t compare to the first half and is a bit too similar to what we have already heard from Passion Pit – even within the same album. It is a shame Michael did not spend a bit more time with this album to really clean it up and to flesh it out because it could have easily been a really special album. The production issues are significant, and I’m removing an entire point out of 10 as a result. I can’t ignore 10% of the album being produced so badly that it is difficult to listen to. Nonetheless, A Tremendous Sea of Love is still a great album that is wonderfully enjoyable to listen to, deep and demanding exploration, and a great new direction for Michael Angelakos.