Phoenix ‘Bankrupt!’ – Review

9 May

Phoenix’s story-arc is surprising and encouraging. At the start of the new Millennium they made two average electro-pop albums that received little fanfare outside of the Parisian scene that birthed them. For a while after they pretended to be The Strokes and in doing so created a new and appealing identity all of their own. Fourth album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ came next, an album full to bursting of candy coated riffs, pristine vocal melodies and understated digital textures. They were nominated for a Grammy, gate crashed the charts and headlined Coachella. Not bad for a band of thirty-somethings from France.

They’d probably have been fools to change the formula too much, so at its core ‘Bankrupt!’ shares the same DNA as its predecessors. The key elements are the same but with new tints and twists. The fabulously double tracked vocals on album opener ‘Entertainment’ make you feel right at home – as do the lyrics, in which singer Thomas Mars impatiently, impulsively flickers from one thought to another without making much sense: ‘why you keep pretending that you wanna let go / do? Do you wanna let go?/ Loud volume turns to low, low, low.’

Mars learnt English by listening to old rock n roll records at home. The words were sheer gibberish to him to begin with but over time he began to understand their meaning. Complex lyrics however remained a struggle. With strange foreign words swimming in his head he began to assign them new meanings of his own creation, interpreting these songs in his own way, dragging sense from them kicking and screaming. He didn’t know what these songs meant to their authors but he knew what they meant to him. In the latter stages of their career Phoenix have been inviting the same response to their lyrics. The words are technically English, and usually in the correct order, but they rarely make sense on a literal level. The listener is left less as a passive observer and more as a participant in the creative process, constructing meaning for themselves. On ‘Wolfgang Amadeus’ this was a joy because you were given a basic map to guide you. It was obvious, for example, that Rome’ was about the aftermath of a break-up but it was up to you to decipher lines like ‘focus/ looking forward/the coliseum/oh no! What did I say? What can I say?!’

On ‘Bankrupt’ though meaning is even more elusive and the journey sometimes feels a bit like a hopeless trek. This is partially because the imagery is much vaguer but also because there’s very little emotive force behind the words. Almost every song on ‘Wolfgang’ had some kind of emotional resonance that connected with the listener, but the band’s aims on ‘Bankrupt’ are much more grand – some of these songs scan as social or even political commentary but offer no real comment or answers. On the disparaging ‘Oblique City’ Mars sings ‘Antlantis If I really find it / Velocity / Potentially / Not the logic of the momentum / it’s way more than tragic.’ Even in context the words make little sense. You’re left with a puzzle that’s impossible to solve, offers no emotional reward and is little fun to play with.

This cold, un-emotive delivery is offset but a steely, expensive sound which is equally un-involving on an emotional level. That said every instrument is expertly played and the melodies are always magnificent and joyous. But one thing I can’t quite get past is how heavy and loud the mix is. It’s surprising because ‘Wolfgang’ was polished, refined, light and silky. Here though certain instruments are muddy – buried in a bombastic mix that places emphasis on loudness. The climax of ‘Oblique City’ feels particularly dense and crushing. ‘The Right Thing’ has some great 80’s reference points but there’s far too much going on. Of all the bands that could have fallen short sonically I can’t believe it’s Phoenix – usually such diligent perfectionists. It’s even more surprising because they engineered ‘Bankrupt’ with the same console that was used to mix ‘Thriller’. THE Thriller – one of the most airtight, precisely produced, funky records of all time.

As negative and heavy as some of the album’s traits are, it’s to the band’s credit that you remember ‘Brankrupt!’ for its successes and not its flaws. Although only first single ‘Entertainment’ feels like a classic Phoenix song, the record is very consistent and offers a fair amount of catchy hooks. ‘Dakkor Noir’ (named after an expensive fragrance) is a fabulous put down of modern celebrity culture with a ridiculously great chorus (‘In the Jangle jungle / Junkie jangle / Juggle juggle me). ‘Trying to Be Cool’ is a great mid-80’s throwback that neatly sums up the album’s main theme in 3 and a half minutes of fun. On the other end of the scale is the title track, which is an 8 minute long, prog-pop bomb that (like the equally pointless ‘Love Like a Sunset from their last album) sits right in the middle of the album and nearly trips up songs on either side of it. Actually, it’s less a bomb and more a poisonous gas – it kills slowly, painfully and without reason. Thankfully this is the only tune with absolutely no redeeming features – the other nine songs all have something to offer. But It therefore follows that this album is far from the slice of glossy pop perfection we’ve come to expect from Phoenix. All things considered though It’s still an infectious and charming bit of entertainment that like their song of the same name offers some great hooks with an undercurrent of darkness and confusion.

7/10

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