Being one of the most popular bands in music currently must be a daunting experience. Especially if one of those bands were to win the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, produce two #1 smash hits, venture on four world tours, and recently headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. In this case, that band would be French-based quartet Phoenix. Since their inception as a band, Phoenix has released five albums, including this year’s Bankrupt!. However, much like other famous indie-rock groups, they began with almost zero recognition. Their 2000 retro-funk debut United and 2004’s nonchalant follow-up Alphabetical played small parts in defining the early age of indie rock music, though it had little effect on the American radio charts. Luckily, two years later, the release of their indie breakout It’s Never Been Like That intrigued music listeners and critics alike. Even though Phoenix had somewhat found a place in the music industry, their obscurity hindered them from becoming the alt-rock, synth-pop outfit they are known as today. Fortunately, they got the huge breakthrough they deserved in 2009 with the release of their brilliant fourth record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Combining the elements of alternative lo-fi and electro-rock, Wolfgang was not only an unexpected commercial and critical success, but a Grammy-winning musical masterpiece. Their two awesome mega-hits, “Lisztomania” and “1901,” became the paradigms of Phoenix’s defining attributes as a rock band, which led them to perform both tunes on Saturday Night Live, as well as in commercials and many other venues. Four years later, the Versailles outfit releases Bankrupt!, another exceptional record but far different from its predecessor.
On Wolfgang, Phoenix sounds relaxed, fluid, and incredibly catchy. On Bankrupt!, Phoenix sounds much more ecstatic, but equally discordant and strained. It’s as though they are aware of their success and popularity, which, in this case, can be overwhelming, thus resulting in a tense and anxious (albeit appealing) record. Bankrupt! is heavy on synths and hooks and light on lyrics and introspection, which says something about Phoenix’s central focus on the album’s sound. Although Phoenix incorporates a diverse set of K-pop fusion, acoustic guitar riffs, and ethereal synthesizers, the result is slightly unsettling and manic, unlike Wolfgang‘s calm and composed rhythms.
Bankrupt! begins with the epic, heavily promoted crowd-pleaser “Entertainment,” which is one of Phoenix’s most mainstream songs to date. Despite “Entertainment”‘s lively Japanese-infused production, memorable resonance, and diverse remixes from Dinosaur Jr., Blood Orange, and Dirty Projectors, it contradicts itself with the self-conscious lyricism: The uplifting chorus builds up with grandeur, but ends with lead singer Thomas Mars’ confusing proclamation, “I’d rather be alone.” The fact that “Entertainment” sounds like a riveting live performance rebutes Mars’ solidarity, making the song an arguably adequate Bankrupt! tune, in terms of both lyrics and sound. Despite this semi-setback, the rest of Bankrupt!‘s first half encompasses the album’s best tracks — “The Real Thing,” “SOS In Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool” — and an overall enjoyable tone. “The Real Thing” and “SOS In Bel Air” share a simliar uptempo cadence, but each track contains some of Phoenix’s finest moments as musicians. “Trying to Be Cool” opens with a gentle guitar riff, followed by handclaps, electronic twirls, and mid-90s art pop. The themes of Bankrupt! — loneliness, anxiety, glamour, materialism, fashion, romanticism, and the cult of celebrity — are seen within these three standout tracks, as well in some of the second half of Bankrupt!.
Right smack in the middle of Phoenix’s fifth record is the 7-minute title track, which marks the endpoint of Bankrupt!‘s steady pacing. The title track, similar in length and ambition to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix‘s vivacious “Love Like a Sunset,” and It’s Never Been Like That‘s “North,” bears the most diverse moments in Phoenix’s career, as well as their most unnerving. Beginning with a quiet, double-speed guitar riff and ambient electro noises, the title track stops short of 2 minutes with an echoing piano, followed by what seems like an undeclared “bass drop” and a cacophony of harpsichords, twinkly keyboard harmonies, and stuttering, strobe-light synthesizers. This moment in Bankrupt! isn’t their worst, but perhaps their most confusing, considering that Phoenix deviates from using heavy electronic in the majority of their songs. However, the chaotic beat stops suddenly again and fortunately turns into an enchanting, acoustic-filled dreamscape of elation, accompanied with Mars’ dreamy voice.
However, like the exclamation point in the album’s title, Bankrupt!‘s second half tends to overemphasize the utilization of synth-pop. But, it nevertheless maintains Phoenix’s sincerity and authenticity as a close-knit rock group. Following the title track is the sleazy sonic jive “Drakkar Noir,” which transitions gradually into the washed out, slow jam “Chloroform.” Both songs signify Phoenix’s French influence with a mix of seductiveness and electro lo-fi. Ostensibly, “Chloroform” sounds a little like a slowed-down version of “1901,” which makes sense, since both songs were paired together during Phoenix’s Coachella performance with R. Kelly’s famous hits “Ignition” and “I’m a Flirt.” “Don’t” is another exceptional Bankrupt! tune, but the tedious chorus makes the song seem a lot longer than it already sounds. Phoenix successfully attempts to use 60s-influenced rock and “sha-la-la-las” with late 80s-influenced shoegaze on the dazzling “Bourgeois.” Bankrupt! closer “Oblique City” is unfortunately the album’s weakest track. Unlike most of Phoenix’s epic album closers, such as Wolfgang’s spill-chilling “Armistice,” “Oblique City” deceptively reverberates recycled Phoenix material into a mediocre conclusion.
Though Bankrupt! may not be as stellar as Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it still proves that Phoenix can make great sound and audiences dance at live performances. Phoenix’s outstanding members, which include the aforementioned Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz, and guitarist Christian Mazzalai, are more determined than ever with Bankrupt!, though their ambition might have gotten caught up with the distress and apprehension over their recent success. In some cases, that kind of superstardom usually gets deep into the head of the band and ultimately steers them into the wrong direction. With Phoenix, superstardom has neither steered them into the wrong nor the right direction, but into a place of excited and anxious contemplation.
Suggested Tracks: “Entertainment,” “The Real Thing,” “SOS in Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool”