For most of their careers, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carthel have pretty much relied on nostalgia in order to do their work. As Phantogram, their music has always resembled much of the sounds evoked by the post-punk revival earlier in the aughts in its poppier form. Drawing heavily on dream pop, electronica and trip-hop, all in equal measure, albums like 2010’s Eyelid Movies and 2014’s Voices come off well-rounded and calculated experiments between those two worlds. Which is to say, Phantogram have always sought to explore that perfect spot found between the most humane, perfect pop songs and the darker, more ambivalent work of post-punk.
Three, their follow-up to 2014’s Voices, is yet another towards that aesthetic path. An aggressive, abrasive goth-pop album, its emotions are as nocturnal as its sound wants to be. Three can be depicted as an act of rebellion. Therefore, long gone are the harmless synth-pop anthems we heard, for instance, in 2011’s Nightlife EP. There might be an explanation for the sudden transition. Earlier this year, Sarah lost a family member, which is something that explains much of the album’s tone and ambience.
That is clear right upon the first track: “Funeral Pyre” is combination of drone, noise and nihilism. The song’s object also marks Three’s album cover: the symbolism cannot be ignored. Barthel does not let me lie: “All I see is your eyes,” she sings. Three does not share a singular, specific theme, yet death and loss seem to surround it — or at least what sounds like those themes.
Three moves between these moments of misery and pure candidness. “I used to see beauty in people / But now I see muscles and bones,” Barthel says in “Cruel World”, admitting defeat. It’s unclear what Phantogram are trying to tackle with these songs — the characters have no names, there is no story attached to them. Luckily, the production is what sustains the album’s spectacle. If Three as a whole does not make sense, it’s the album’s ambience which proves to be cathartic. “Barking Dog” is as abstract as you could imagine, yet the confluence of strings and drone match Josh Cartel’s voice quite well. “Never mind the barking dog,” he shouts once: One does not question. One obeys.
Piano ballad “Answer” represents yet another moment of candidness in the album. It’s a rare demonstration of simplicity in a project focused so much in showcasing contrasts: death and loss against delicacy, urgency against calmness. Yet, when they approach that balance, they reach perfection: “Run Run Blood” is an ecstatic mess of a pop song, conjuring the duo’s pop punk appeal alongside their penchant for dream pop and electronica.
For all the energy and time directed towards the album’s subject — let it be death and loss, aggression, or just its idea of pop perfection — we’re left wondering what Three is ultimately about. This is an incomplete narrative. There is no way of getting lost inside Phantogram’s latest album because it offers no concrete picture for us to appreciate. For all the spirit, its abstraction keeps it from going even further.
Luckily, that doesn’t change the fact that the album thoroughly excels at what it aims to do. Three is perhaps Phantogram’s most incisive record yet, sustaining a very solid and concrete idea of what kind of pop it wants to promote. There is no great narrative attached to it. That is not to say Three is hollow — sometimes that can be read as something positive (overthinking the meaning of “Funeral Pyre” would perhaps ruin the song for instance). It just means Phantogram are painfully objective. Can’t blame them for that. B