Review Summary: Can't stop loving you.
It’s a deep, dark secret of mine that when I first heard “Lisztomania,” the initial single off 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
, I hated it. Where was the pounding hook of “Consolation Prizes,” the fearless anything-goes mentality of United
? Now, I’m not proud of this – in retrospect, I don’t even know how it was possible, so viscerally thrilling follow-up “1901” is and how immediate the album as a whole feels to me now. But I came around to it; we all did, really, as Wolfgang’s
sales and Phoenix’s headlining turn at this month’s Coachella confirmed. That album was the perfect summation of their love for ‘80s glam and a knack for crafting airy hooks, lightweight as confectioner’s sugar and twice as sweet. Yet in the context of their career, it wasn’t all that much different from what had come before, despite my earliest misplaced misgivings. That’s why Bankrupt!
is such an interesting record – for the first time in their careers, Phoenix have something to prove. They don’t shy away from their new billing as arena rockers, but their sound is as deliriously uncool as ever – “Entertainment” bursts out of the gate with a truly massive chorus, a wall of synths that looks at Wolfgang’s
spartan in comparison production and laughs. But its oriental motif is chintzy and hilariously cheesy, and in Thomas Mars’ triumphant climax is just one double-edged wish: “I’d rather be alone.”
In that respect, Bankrupt!
is a textbook dealing-with-success record. There’s a lot of pensive melancholy among Mars’ typically adroit verbal gymnastics, disguised by the searing brightness of the music but still found out easily enough for those willing to parse through his often-cryptic lyrics. This dichotomy works out well enough – Mars likes to poke fun at himself for “Trying To Be Cool,” but there’s nothing affected here. The hooks come hard and fast and appropriately stadium-sized, and Mars sounds equally at ease lamenting the cultural elite on “Bourgeois” as he does exhorting a lover to “follow, follow me” on “The Real Thing.” That latter track is a revelation in how Phoenix sees itself these days, a slow and deliberate anthem whose pounding chorus is awash in gated reverb and hits with all the intensity of a jet engine. Phoenix are still more than happy to get down, but “The Real Thing” is a song for waving your lighters in the air, for expansive fields and stirring up big, old, dumb human emotion. There is nothing here as instantly gratifying as that first buzzsaw synth of “1901,” but let’s be honest here: will there ever be? What Bankrupt!
prefers to do, however, is further explore the sleaziest corners of the ‘80s and pile on the layers, not delicately but with wild, reckless abandon. Oh, and keyboards. Lots and lots of keyboards.
If it sometimes seems that Bankrupt!
is bursting at the seams, it’s because it is. A song like album highlight “SOS in Bel Air” has no less than three different hooks running rampant through its breathless structure, while “Trying To Be Cool” pokes fun at itself and the band with a breezy, gleaming bit of ‘80s trifle that is decidedly uncool for 2013 – and that’s before the R&B breakdown that ends things without a hint of embarrassment. At times, the overwhelming amount of things
going on may lead Phoenix to sound like it has written a check their songwriting chops can’t cash. “Don’t” bounces from deranged uptempo electro-pop to half-time chilled-out jam before abruptly switching back with a bizarrely disconnected synth riff, giving the track a disjointed, awkward feel. The chaotic, chirping beat that propels “Drakkar Noir” puts the focus squarely on the lyrics, which are laughably obtuse, even by Phoenix’s enigmatic standards; for Mars, it’s often a perilously thin line between saying a lot and saying nothing at all. The title track, meanwhile, continues the band’s theme of placing at least one semi-instrumental track drawn out to anti-pop lengths on each album, but whereas 2009’s “Love Like A Sunset” and It’s Never Been Like That’s
“North” showcased a fascinating look at a side of the band not typically on display, “Bankrupt” never really goes anywhere, instead content to float around ambient keys and a muddy bass drone. It’s an odd blip on a record that otherwise refuses to pussyfoot around the candied hooks at the bottom of every track.
So, yes, there’s a goddamn pan-flute solo on the otherwise delightfully murky “Chloroform,” and if “Trying To Be Cool” didn’t serve as an obvious signpost, the fact that they recorded Bankrupt!
on an old console used for Michael Jackson’s Thriller
should make it clear that neon-rimmed bombast and thick, baroque pop is the order of the day here. On a pound-for-pound basis, the songs here take more than one intuitive listen to gnaw their way deep into your brainstem than did the readymade hits of Wolfgang
or It’s Never Been Like That
. They are heavier, and denser, and overwhelmingly less instant than their predecessors, as cloaked and finely adorned in all manner of bright, shiny synths as they are, at times almost crushed under the weight of an ambitiously flamboyant band. But these are still Phoenix songs, and by the end of a dozen listens they are as urgent as ever: that whip-crack drum entry on “Oblique City;” the coke-tinged VIP frenzy of “SOS in Bel Air;” the exhaustion that seeps into Mars’ voice on “Chloroform” married to that syrupy bass swell, the band on an inevitable club comedown. “Would I long for you? Is it up to you?” Mars asks on that last track, and by the end of Bankrupt!
I feel the same way, the way I’ve felt each time I’ve fallen in love with a new Phoenix record no matter what my initial thoughts might have been – is it really up to me?