By all accounts, Jack Antonoff seems like a nice dude. He’s one of pop music’s most in-demand producers, working with artists as esteemed as Taylor Swift, Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, St. Vincent, Lana Del Ray, and more. Most, if not all of those people, have publicly raved about their experiences with him. During the worst of Kesha’s legal battle with her alleged abuser Dr. Luke, Antonoff offered to “to make something together & then leak it for everyone” depending on the legal particulars of her record contract. In interviews, the 35-year-old New Jersey native is endearing, and it seems like it would be easy to bond with him over a love for R.E.M. and ephemeral ’80s pop. But the thing is, none of his work, from his production credits to the vulnerable and sugary pop songs he makes as Bleachers or the anthemic sing-a-longs from his sideman gig in Fun. have ever been particularly great.
This is hard to ignore in light of the recent release of “Half Love,” the latest single from Red Hearse, Antonoff’s unlikely supergroup with TDE producer and MASSEDUCTION-collaborator Sounwave and Chicago songwriter Sam Dew. It’s a fine song, a particularly danceable number in Antonoff’s catalog that’s anchored by Dew’s silky falsetto, but it doesn’t really land. With Antonoff’s music, one of his perceived strengths is that he wears his influences on his sleeve, liberally highlighting artists like the Beatles, Elton John, and Kate Bush in the context of present day pop music. But the problem here is some of the reference points hit so cleanly it rings hollow. It’s too on the nose. On this track in particular, there are hints of Justin Timberlake and by default, Prince, as well as Daft Punk in the song’s subtle (or not-so-subtle) vocoder effects.
All music picks up where previous artists left off but too-clever nods to the past and nostalgia can be overused to the point of dilution. In fact, in 2017, when Antonoff released his Bleachers album Gone Now, he removed his childhood room which he lived in New Jersey until the age of 2017 from his parents’ home, and brought it on tour. Singles off that LP like “Don’t Take The Money,” feel as if Fall Out Boy or Imagine Dragons only listened to A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” or “Goodmorning,” which is a highlight for its Let It Be-pastiche. This isn’t to say that Antonoff isn’t talented; he’s clearly able to write an effective pop song, and he’s helped the careers of several prominent stars, but his taste can be too a little too familiar and pandering.
Maybe it’s a question of critics just not getting it, but Antonoff has been so prolific that little from his resume feels timeless or endlessly listenable. Though Fun. was inescapable around 2012, a tweet from that year saying, “The band Fun. is like listening to OTHER people having fun.” is more memorable than the chorus to “We Are Young.” Plus, besides Lorde’s excellent 2017 LP Melodrama, every album he’s produced by a different artist has arguably ranked near the bottom of their respective discographies. Considering his press hype as “Your Favorite Pop Star’s Secret Weapon” and “The Most Important Producer In Pop,” it’s hard to imagine the genre moving forward if one of its most prominent figures keeps looking in the rearview.