Late last year, in the video for “Chinatown,” Jack Antonoff drove from New York to New Jersey, cruising down the turnpike with Bruce Springsteen riding shotgun. Last month, in an “Into the Shadow” live performance, the Bleachers frontman and pop producing titan crossed state lines again, this time in a bus with his touring bandmates. In the two videos, Antonoff embodies the conflict at the heart of Bleachers’ third album, “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night,” navigating the borders of his life — geographic or emotional — and grappling with his pain.
Throughout his tenure with Steel Train and now Bleachers, Antonoff has developed a knack for supersizing personal stories into larger-than-life pop anthems, but “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night” sees the artist shelving his signature grandiosity for a more stripped-down approach. The album opens with “91,” a baroque overture that immediately transports us through Antonoff’s past, present and future. Above a string quartet, Antonoff paints vivid pictures of watching the Gulf War on TV as a child, ending a relationship and eventually falling in love with someone new. Then a retro synth snaps us out of the dreamscape and sweeps us into “Chinatown.” Featuring none other than Springsteen, the song sees Antonoff bringing someone back home to New Jersey and showing them his true self. Its layered synth, acoustic guitar and sparkling xylophone elicit a nostalgia not tied to a specific decade but rather an old, familiar yearning. The song nests in your brain, tricking you into believing you’ve known it your whole life, with a key lyric — “I wanna find tomorrow / With a girl like you” — so perfectly simple and sweet, the Boss himself could have written it.
Antonoff channels Springsteen again on “Don’t Go Dark,” which flourishes amid dreamy, upbeat melancholia. In the plunky “Stop Making This Hurt” — the most Bleachery song on the record — Antonoff personifies the pain in his life and begs for mercy. The euphoric centerpiece of the album, the song encapsulates Antonoff’s relationship with hurt: held back by it, incomplete without it. In his words: “If we take the sadness out of Saturday night / I wonder what we’ll be left with, anything worth the fight?”
Sometimes, however, the grandness of Antonoff’s sonic vision is squandered by studio production, as in the case of the saxophone-filled “How Dare You Want More,” whose explosive live energy doesn’t fully translate on the record. While running the risk of being hokey, the song’s back half — in which Antonoff trades eights with saxophonist Evan Smith — will surely be a highlight on tour. On the pleasant “Big Life” and its lulling, Lana Del Rey-featuring counterpart, “Secret Life,” Antonoff toils with fame and love. While “Big Life” shines with swirling synths and popping drums, the song feels derivative even for Antonoff, who proudly wears his influences on his sleeve.
The usually boisterous artist dials back the noise and whips out the acoustic guitar in the final third of the album, starting with “45,” which Antonoff has called the official counterpart to “Chinatown.” A spirited ode to New Jersey, it’s Antonoff’s best angsty ballad in years. “Strange Behavior” is a wonderfully stripped-down remake of Steel Train’s “Behavior.” The album closer, “What’d I Do with All This Faith,” is a delightful exercise in self-restraint, subverting expectations by avoiding the instinct to explode in a grand flurry of horns and screeching guitars and, instead, fizzling out in a mellow anti-climax.
While “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night” is perhaps not as conceptually ambitious as 2017’s “Gone Now,” the album beautifully tells the story of a man caught between his past and his future; between New Jersey and New York. It’s about accepting your own pain and wearing someone else’s because you love them; escaping your hometown and then crawling right back to it; moving forward but not moving on.