Strange Behaviour - Jack Antonoff's Polarizing 2021
Who could have anticipated in that a year as messed up as this one, the most polarizing figure in pop music for some people would be Jack Fucking Antonoff?!
I really feel that Jack Antonoff's production credits have followed a bell curve-esque pattern in terms of public opinion. I remember when he first started gaining major production credits in 2014 for the likes of Taylor Swift and Troye Sivan, and how people joked about his then-signature sound: handclaps, glossy 70s synths, and a stadium-sized vision, à la Some Nights. This sound would be improved upon and refined in 2017 when he worked with Lorde on Melodrama, her magnum opus and one of my favourite albums of all time.
Melodrama was a breakthrough moment for everyone involved - it made Lorde an even bigger star than before, cementing her as a true visionary artist, and it firmly placed Antonoff as one of pop's go-to producers. In a way, it's remarkable that a self-confessed Springsteen disciple and undeniable retro purist became so ubiquitous, especially as some of his production is straight up weird - take one look at St. Vincent's fucking wild Masseduction for example. At the time I could understand his popularity, but it was still disarming to see the guy who produced Savior become one of the biggest names in pop.
From this point on, Antonoff could only go even further up, making more brilliant records with Taylor Swift (Lover is grossly underrated), and expanding his clientele to even more artists to prove he was not a one-trick stone pony - from Kevin Abstract's futuristic rap on Arizona Baby to Lana Del Rey's phenomenal, understated Norman Fucking Rockwell!. And all of this is without mentioning his brilliant solo work as Bleachers, successfully blending 80s synthpop with 70s Americana throwbacks, all accompanied with some of his best production work to date. If you've not heard the phenomenal Gone Now, you're missing out.
So what went wrong?
2021 has been a landmark year for Antonoff, building on 2020's folklore and evermore duology to develop a more traditionally tasteful signature sound. He's been lead producer on five albums this year, not to mention working with Taylor Swift on some of her re-recorded Taylor's Versions, plus getting a short-lived Grammy nomination for songwriting credits on Olivia Rodrigo's inescapable Sour, and working on Diana Ross' comeback album, Thank You. It should all be golden, and yet some listeners seem to have developed "Antonoff Fatigue". Maybe it's his seeming omnipresence across records from Clairo to Lorde, or maybe its his new acoustic-led style getting stale in the eyes of some listeners.
In this article, I'm going to look back on Antonoff's banner 2021, taking a detailed look at every album he worked on, giving my personal opinions on each. I'll be looking at the highlights and lowlights of both Antonoff's production and the albums themselves, from some of my favourite albums of the year to some of the biggest disappointments. Without any further ado, let's take a deep dive into what makes New Jersey's finest (Springsteen forgive me)* such a polarizing figure in music today!
Chemtrails Over the Country Club - Lana Del Rey
Following up a masterpiece like Norman Fucking Rockwell! would have been an impossible task for anyone. It's Lana Del Rey's greatest album yet, and it seems unlikely that she will ever surpass it. However, Chemtrails is a solid record in its own right; avoiding the epic scope of NFR! for an overall more intimate experience. Songs like the opening White Dress feel like a stream-of-consciousness, with lyrics that could only be written by Del Rey. Antonoff's production is among his most delicate and restrained throughout, helping the best songs reach new heights, such as the country-tinged Breaking Up Slowly, and the beautiful widescreen balladry of Wild at Heart.
While still receiving generally positive reviews, some fans felt the album offered diminishing returns on NFR!. I do feel that's an unfair comparison, though - Chemtrails is a different enough beast to stand strong separately from her previous work. Regardless of your opinion on Antonoff's production, it's certainly a more cohesive and consistent listen than Del Rey's second album of 2021 (the still pretty good but overlong Blue Banisters), which featured a more diverse sound to mixed results. However, to some people, that consistency is his downfall, as we will go on to examine in later albums.
Daddy's Home - St. Vincent
The promotional campaign for St. Vincent's latest record threatened to derail the album itself, culminating in an uncomfortable killed interview that led to much criticism. Now that the dust has settled, its easier to see Daddy's Home for what it is - a perfectly fine St. Vincent album that's neither her best nor worst release. It's a contrasting counterpart to her previous record with Antonoff (2017's Masseduction) - while that album felt breathless and restless, Daddy's Home is a more consistent affair, with every track sitting comfortably in a retro, lounge-esque space. There's still plenty of room for Annie Clark's signature guitar pyrotechnics - Live in the Dream is as instrumentally powerful a song as she's ever written, and if there's any justice, Down will be a live staple for eternity. Antonoff's production is lush and spacious here, in an album that feels like the perfect lavender marriage of two musical minds.
Even though I feel it's one of St. Vincent's weaker releases, I really enjoyed the production throughout in a way that felt different to a lot of Antonoff's recent work. Instead of settling for Masseduction 2.0, they went in an unexpected direction, making for a unique listen in both artists' accomplished catalogues. It's definitely different to Clark's previous releases, feeling jazzier than Masseduction and more chilled out than her self-titled. However, like Chemtrails before it, the retro-inspired production wasn't to everyone's tastes - maybe in a post-folklore pop landscape, this was the moment when listeners were starting to tire of Antonoff.
Sling - Clairo
Clairo is a brilliant producer in her own right, producing many of her early tracks including breakout hits Pretty Girl and Flaming Hot Cheetos. Maybe that's part of why she's got a strong ear for production, going on to work with Danny L Harle, Rostam Batmanglij, and now Jack Antonoff. Sling is a departure for Clairo in that it leans into her folksy influences more than ever, with tracks inspired by Elliot Smith and The Carpenters. It's as intimate as her debut album Immunity, but trades that album's wintry synths and electronics for acoustic guitars and warm strings. While it lacks some of the immediacy of her earlier work (outside of the earworm-filled Amoeba and the blissful Zinnias), it's a beautifully cosy record that retains the intimacy of her debut.
While critics were generally favourable of Sling (it holds an average score of 84/100 on Metacritic, the highest-reviewed Antonoff-produced record of the year), there were more than a few listeners noting a sense of "easy-listening ennui", or worse yet, "resolutely uncatchy". In their defence, Sling is a very different beast to Immunity - there are no immediate bangers in the same way that Sofia and Bags were. It's not like Antonoff doesn't do bops - after all, this is the guy who produced I Wish You Would. It's also not like Immunity was a wholly pop album, either, and its clear that Clairo isn't chasing after a sequel to Sofia. She's an artist content in making the music that she wants, at her own pace.
Clairo has spoken in interviews about how Sling is a document of endeavours to reassess what it is she wants from life. It's clear that she's making the music that she wants to make, and we should trust that her album is, above anything else, a product of her own vision. As an artist disillusioned by the music industry to the point that she considered quitting entirely, Antonoff's "big brother"-like support for Clairo is refreshing, and while some detractors have pinned her new musical direction on Antonoff, it feels more likely to me that he's helping her actualize her own ideals rather than his own.
Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night - Bleachers
In a year where Antonoff mainly made headlines for his work with big-name collaborators, his solo album as Bleachers largely flew under the radar by comparison. It's almost unfair (but understandable) that he saved some of his best production for himself - Take The Sadness Out of Saturday Night is a lush Springsteen homage, full of beautiful orchestral arrangements (91, Strange Behaviour) and barnstorming rock throwbacks (How Dare You Want More, which feels like it could be a Born To Run loosie). It's by far and away my favourite album that he worked on this year, distilling his strengths as a producer, songwriter and musician into 10 phenomenal tracks. There's overlap here with the retro stylings of Daddy's Home and Chemtrails, but things feel different - presumably as the creative direction here is all Antonoff, rather than a collaboration with another artist. This puts his production work in a clearer perspective, making it easier to see the creative input of the artists that he works with - be that Del Rey, St. Vincent, Clairo, or Lorde.
Solar Power - Lorde
I wanted to like Solar Power more than I did. After Lorde and Antonoff struck gold with 2017's bona-fide classic Melodrama, anticipation was high for their reunion record. It's no wonder they diverged from the glossy, late-night sheen of Melodrama, and I can't blame them - lightning wouldn't be able to strike twice. The best moments on Solar Power are some of the most unfamiliar sounds Lorde has explored, from the Primal Scream-meets-beach rave joy of the title track, to the heartbreaking tenderness of Big Star. The album falls down lyrically on songs like the questionable satire of Mood Ring or the underwritten Leader of a New Regime. All in all, the album feels like a missed opportunity. It isn't without its own merits - it's just a shame it couldn't carry the momentum of its great opening trio of songs throughout.
Most criticism of Solar Power was two-pronged and somewhat contradictory: one, that Lorde's lyrical talent has fallen short of her previous work in favour of satire that misses the mark; two, that Antonoff's signature production waters down Lorde's talents and derails the album. Some of the criticism holds water - Mood Ring is my least favourite Lorde song yet, and some of Solar Power's production is derivative compared to both artist's previous work, with some fans pointing out similarities between Stoned at the Nail Salon and some of Antonoff's co-written songs with Lana Del Rey. This has led to accusations of Antonoff "recycling" the same sound across his various collaborations, arguably leading to homogenisation.
However, its easy to make Antonoff a scapegoat and go too far. Some reviewers have painted him as a "svengali" while decrying his influence on the album. However, Lorde herself described it as "insulting" to reduce the record to an Antonoff project. In her own words, credit for the project belongs to her, warts and all. Lana Del Rey expressed a similar sentiment, saying "Jack very much takes my lead". To dislike Antonoff's production, or to dislike an album because of his production is understandable - but to attribute an artist's flawed writing to her producer feels lazy and misogynistic.
While the five albums above are the only albums that Antonoff primarily produced this year, his fingerprints are all over today's pop landscape. Regular collaborator and friend Taylor Swift chose him to work on some vault tracks for her re-recordings of Fearless and Red, granting the duo another number-one hit in their phenomenal version of All Too Well. Their influence is clear on Olivia Rodrigo's songwriting too: both Antonoff and Swift received songwriting credits on her tracks 1 step forward, 3 steps back and deja vu, which interpolate Swift's New Years Day and Cruel Summer respectively. Both Swift tracks feature songwriting credits and production by Antonoff, leading to the pair earning a Grammy nomination for deja vu (that was later retracted due to a submission error). Even beyond this, Antonoff's influence is clear on many artists today: take Glass Animals, who scored a top-ten hit with Heat Waves earlier this year. Reviewers noted similarities between their sound and Antonoff's, and they recently released a cover of Lorde's Solar Power. Even Billie Eilish's Happier Than Ever has been compared to Antonoff, in how it pivoted away from Pure Heroine-esque pop to a ghostlier, retro-influenced affair.
Jack Antonoff will always be a Marmite producer for some. Just like there will be arguments that he elevates those he works with to new heights, there will also be arguments that he railroads an artist's sound into the middle of the road (or a "flop era", as some would say). Some producers prefer a hands-off approach, while others strongly influence the sound of the artist, and regardless of your opinion on him, it seems more likely that Antonoff is the latter. While some criticisms of him hold water, there will always be some that carry a streak of misogyny.
I'll conclude the article by quoting Lorde, who's work with Antonoff has often elicited polarized reactions, whether it's lauding Melodrama as the greatest breakup album of all time or dismissing Solar Power's tuneless detachment. When asked about the narrative that suggests Antonoff is responsible for homogenising the sound of his female collaborators together, she dismissed it as "retro" and "sexist". “I haven't made a Jack Antonoff record, I've made a Lorde record and he's helped me make it and very much deferred to me on production and arrangement. Jack would agree with this. To give him that amount of credit is frankly insulting.”
*Bleachers haven't yet made a record as good as Darkness or Nebraska, but I'd argue that as great as Letter To You was, they're making better than Springsteen is nowadays.
Listen to a playlist featuring songs from Jack Antonoff's rollercoaster year below.
AC is the Head of Written Content at QSO Media. Follow them on Twitter.