Review: Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Phoenix Bankrupt
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by DREW MALMUTH

People always say otherwise, but when you hear a fantastic, as-of-yet-unpopular song part of you wants to covet it.  Some are always going to share their hidden gems but others – the relatable, yet loathsome gollums of the fanatical music community – prefer to enjoy their unreleased re-edits in isolation.  I have to admit that only a few songs have turned me into this selfish, hermitic listener; Phoenix’s “Too Young” is the first on the list.  When it was released in 2000 I would play it only for friends that I knew were too snobbish about music to ask me who the artist was.  The sense of exclusivity around the song not only made it sound better, it made me feel cooler for listening to it.

Yet as the song quickly gained traction, scoring spots in the classic films Lost in Translation and Shallow Hal, I somehow enjoyed “Too Young” even more.  It became very clear that it’s a song that only thrives when widely enjoyed.  This incompatibility with isolation is at the core of what has made Phoenix great; they harness the communal gaiety of pop music and spread it like an infectious laugh.  On Bankrupt!, the bands fifth studio release, Phoenix don’t veer from that territory, offering a solid, if predictable, follow up to their breakthrough album.

In the lead up to the albums release, Thomas Mars suggested that Bankrupt! would be their most experimental work yet.  This could have been interpreted in a couple ways.  Either the album would more fully commit to the unpolished, Britt Daniel-indebted sound of It’s Never Been Like That or they would tackle electronic soundscapes, in the vein of “Love Like a Sunset.”  It turns out neither of those were even close.  Bankrupt!, much like its predecessor, is a collection of catchy, synth-heavy songs broken up by a well-crafted interlude.  There may not be the knockout trio of “Listzomania,” “1901,” and “Fences,” but there are still immediate standouts alongside melodies that more slowly creep their way into your head.  Phoenix built their success around songwriting that magnifies the glamor and sex inherent in their sound; Bankrupt! makes every effort to continue that trend.

Trying to set the hook early, the album starts with the energetic single, “Entertainment.”  Twangy, metallic synths give way to a swaying combination of pounding drums and fuzzy piano lines.  As Phoenix songs tend to do, “Entertainment” takes advantage of contrast, splicing raucous breakdowns with the spacious vocal sections.  When Thomas Mars starts singing it always sounds like he is either preparing to or has just finished dancing manically.  This fills their songs with little pockets of anticipation and release.  “S.O.S. In Bel Air” is an unremarkable song up until Mars giddily screams “put my name on your list, S.O.S. in Bel Air” and the melody hits its climax.  Still, some of the tracks succeed simply because they are relentlessly fun to listen to.  “Chloroform” bounces along with the kind of melting dance sound practiced by Toro y Moi.  The snapping, “Dancing in the Dark” drums on “Don’t” set the framework for a persistently catchy blend of high-pitched synths and glitzy vocals.  These pop gems are nothing new for Phoenix, but they are still welcome listening.

While most of the album is good, “Bankrupt!” is one of the only tracks that is unpredictable.  The first part of the song is filled with lush, layered instrumentals, not unlike Prins Thomas or FWY!  After two minutes, swirls of arpeggiated synths start to weave around one another, the varying levels of distortion creating a mixture of serenity and unease.  Then the song’s melody takes hold.  When Mars starts singing the track’s dynamic effortlessly shifts from The Field to Bowie and Pink Floyd.  It is the least energetic song on the album, but the refreshing buffer it creates between the A and B side goes a long way toward making Bankrupt! work as a whole.  On the other hand, songs like “Trying to be Cool” and “Bourgeois” get lost in the swirl of poppy eccentricity.  When the majority of an album aims to operate at peak excitement levels it’s inevitable that the less interesting songs are going to feel deflating.

Bankrupt! doesn’t inspire the covetousness of their early material, but rather it takes its natural place as an album to be consumed en masse by Phoenix’s hefty fan base.  Their songs hinge on a feeling of togetherness and shared emotion.  Thomas Mars said it well when he noted that his lyrics are not necessarily meant to convey a coherent message.  Indeed, he stressed that the songs themselves aren’t logical, but rather ways of trying to get the listener to feel something.  Bankrupt! succeeds in that sense.  It emits the kind of energy and excitement that the band has become synonymous with.  Whether the band will continue at full steam or dive into darker emotional waters is unclear.  Either way, it won’t be boring. [B]

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