The success of Phoenix is just a little bit perplexing. They’ve been plugging away and working hard as a band for close to 15 years now, but it wasn’t until their fourth album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, that they finally saw any sort of measurable success. It’s equally strange that the popularity of that record and their introduction to the mainstream populous really offered nothing different or more attractive than their previous efforts. Indeed, this band has been writing incredibly addictive and danceable songs since at least 2000, it’s just not a lot of people bothered to pay attention for all those years. So what changed? Tastes, most likely. Phoenix have been ready and waiting this whole time, the general public was still trying to work up to their sound. Either that, or they had a piss poor team promoting their music until their last record. No matter how you look at it though, the band paid their dues. To those of us that have been listening to them for several years already it wasn’t so much a matter of if they’d ever be successful but when. Spurred solely on the singles of “1901” and “Lisztomania,” they rocketed to stardom, to the point of major music festival headliner status, which when you think about it is about the most confounding thing of thos entire crazy tale. Are two really great, really catchy songs all one needs these days to earn a place along side the likes of Pearl Jam or Green Day or Coldplay? Apparently so. As they cash in and prepare to headline virtually every major music festival in 2013, Phoenix are finally unleashing their Wolfgang follow-up, which is ironically titled Bankrupt!.
The album sounds like they spent a whole lot of money on it to make it sound as shiny and grandiose as possible, which is what you might expect as they’re trying to metaphorically top themselves and extend their shelf life another few years. Yet Phoenix has always been a big, anthemic band with a super clean sound, so you’re not going to notice much of a difference except that they really try to maximize what they can do with that sound. First single and opening track “Entertainment” is a great example of that, aiming for a grand slam sort of synth pop song with a dash of Asian-sounding keyboards to lend the French band a little more international appeal. The song itself is about the band’s experience with fame and singer Thomas Mars’ largely passive feeling about being viewed as this big rock star. Despite it’s aims and very “1901”-like feel, something about the track feels just a little bit off. The fluctuation in tempo knocks it back on its heels a little, and there seems to be some slight hesitation in the band’s approach that prevents them from really, truly, genuinely going for broke (album title pun intended). It may be largely satisfying the masses thanks to the strong and forceful hand of promotion and radio airplay, but that awkward distance makes it feel like the least effective of their major singles so far.
In fact, Bankrupt! as a whole is has less going for it in the way of singles than just about any of Phoenix’s previous records. It’d be nice to think that they weren’t concerned about such things, and maybe they aren’t, but on songs like “Drakkar Noir” and “The Real Thing” there’s a certain forcefulness built into their structure and hooks that feels more coldly calculated than genuine and organic. Despite this small issue on a couple of tracks, less effective single material leads to some interesting and perhaps better developments in terms of overall album cohesion. Whereas Wolfgang could often feel like a record built around its singles with not much else to inspire in between, the new album brings a consistency and pattern that flows far better despite being less memorable. The same can be said for the lyrics, which have continued to grow ever more obscure and random with each new record from the band. Mars often sings in what feels like half sentences, starting one thought but then finishing it with another that comes across as completely out of context. If you’re looking to connect with these songs on a deeper level, perhaps it’s best if you fill in your own blanks and interpret the lyrics in whatever fashion best suits your own life rather than trying to penetrate the impenetrable.
The best moments on Bankrupt! come when Phoenix sound most relaxed and in their comfort zone. “SOS in Bel Air” is the brightest spot on the album, a jittery would-be single that’s well on par with some of the best things they’ve ever done. Sliding from that into the toe-tapping “Trying to Be Cool” makes for the strongest pairing of tracks as well, right before the colossal mistake that is the seven minute title track shows up to add dead weight in the middle of the record just as it started to hit its stride. Still, “Don’t” and the upbeat closer “Oblique City” are great second half highlights that serve to add balance to the album and keep the listener properly engaged. For the legions of new fans that discovered this band via their last album in 2009, there’s enough going on with Bankrupt! to keep you happy. Like Mumford & Sons, who are arguably the biggest thing in music today, the formula hasn’t really changed and they certainly don’t stumble much in the face of what might be seen as overwhelming pressure to maintain their status among that same upper echelon. What’s truly lacking on this record is a sense of drive and experimentation. Then again, Phoenix have never been the sort of band to rock the boat much with each new album. You’d hope that success would afford them greater freedom and more leeway in their sound, but perhaps where they’re truly bankrupt is in the new ideas department. Oh well, after 15 years of hard work and paying their dues, they’re more than entitled to a victory lap.