Phoenix is that rare band that ‘arrived’ 10 years and four albums into their existence. Over time, they tinkered, tightened, and honed the sound that propelled 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix onto the modern rock charts. It topped the pop charts on the strength of the poly-sheened hook-filled synthrock songs, “Lisztomania” and “1901.” Suddenly, the game changed and Phoenix was no longer a quirky pop band from France.
Now four years since their breakthrough, the gap in recordings suggests that Phoenix wasn’t particularly interested in repeating the blueprint honed with Wolfgang. Recent interviews with lead vocalist and lyricist Thomas Mars hinted that if fans were looking for “1901 Revisited”, it wasn’t going to happen. Collectively, the band favored the idea of moving forward and continuing to grow on their terms. While absolutely entertaining, original and identifiable, Bankrupt falls a tad short of expectations. It is a very good but challenging follow up.
The album begins with the lead single “Entertainment.” The synth-heavy tone and lack of a hook betrays the mirth of “1901.” When Mars sings ‘I’d rather be alone” you’re awaiting the crescendo that never comes. Initially, it’s hard to get by the strong synth presence in the song; at times, you think you’re at a carnival. Repeated listening helps, but an over-reliance on effects and synthetic sound is repelling at first listen.
There are times when technological wizardry advances the album. Tracks like “The Real Thing” and “SOS in Bel Air” are both chock full of headphone ambience. “Trying To Be Cool” recalls the coolest Duran Duran moments with thick keyboard bass and electronic drums at a mid-tempo beat that melts around an 80’s groove.
“Trying to be Cool” (Breakbot Remix) [free download]
The only curveball for the uninitiated is the title track. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, Phoenix splice lots of musical ideas ranging from lonely elegiac keyboards that span the first uninterrupted two minutes, and then snaps to an urgent synthesizer that vaguely recalls Coldplay’s theme from “Death and All His Friends.” It’s five minutes into the track before any vocals appear, but this isn’t a new device for the band (e.g., “North” and “Love Like a Sunset I and II”). While a tad self indulgent, the change up makes an interesting album midpoint.
The standout track from the second side is “Don’t.” Mars’ lyrics follow a pattern of broken up fragments, like near non sequiturs. Yet, it’s his ability to write songs that evoke a sense of loneliness without obvious lyrical content. He sings “I’ll never know, I’ll never know, I’ll never know…you. Restrained, reach out for me” through heavy echo floating high above until unexpected machine gun drum blasts crack through and reverse the song’s direction. On “Drakkar Noir”, Mars takes the illogical lyrical shorthand to new levels with, “In the jangle jungle, jingle junkie, juggle juggle me”; a song mocking the 80’s cologne of choice as a symbol of conformity.
“Don’t” Live on Letterman
Even if it is purposeful, Phoenix have taken a clear and predetermined step back from the heights of Wolfgang Amadeus, which brings the obvious and somewhat ridiculous question, are they bankrupt? The answer—a resounding “no” and let’s see what the next album brings. Bankrupt challenges and, at times, demonstrates that Phoenix is more than just a genie in a bottle.
Lyrics – 15
Composition – 17
Musicianship – 16
Production – 19
Originality – 7
Intangibles – 9