Review Summary: A slow burner; it ultimately takes several listens to appreciate Phoenix's evolved sound on Bankrupt!
A few days after Bankrupt! was released, I wrote a review labeling it as ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Derivative’, and while Phoenix’s fifth LP does share similarities with 2009’s acclaimed Amadeus in its length, structure and tone, it was nevertheless an unfair remark. Phoenix have evolved their sound to be more wholly synth-based, and while their 2011 promise of ‘experimental’ hasn’t been entirely realised, this album remains a healthy next-step for the band.
My initial verdict was that this album was great, but consecutive listens reveal its underlying excellence. Phoenix haven’t forgotten how to write catchy melodies, hard-hitting hooks and quirky, intelligent lyrics. Bankrupt’s first four songs showcase all of those qualities to perfection: the massive oriental synth riff that starts off first single “Entertainment”; the pounding drums in the verses of “The Real Thing”; the joyous chord progression during the pre-chorus of “SOS In Bel Air”; and the effortless swagger of the bassline in “Trying To Be Cool”. These are merely singular elements of a quartet of amazing songs that will stay in your head and your playlists for weeks.
It’s just a shame the album couldn’t stay like this, and the immediate drop in quality of title track “Bankrupt” is evident. Obviously meant to be a re-imagining of “Love Like A Sunset” from their last album, it is instead droning, anti-climactic and in all ways inferior. This 7-minute dud creates a mid-album slump that Phoenix struggle to, but (thankfully) ultimately manage to dig themselves out of. The next three songs are all strong; a particularly clever idea was slowing down the synth motif of “Drakkar Noir” to build the base of next song “Chloroform”. Hearing these tracks for the twentieth time is just as exciting as the first. However, the pulsating synths in the chorus of “Bourgeois” can verge on irritating, and while “Oblique City” is full of energy, it feels like a bonus track.
On Bankrupt, the songs start extremely promisingly but end up somewhat losing that amazing momentum. It pretty much mirrors the lead up to the album’s release. With fans having four years to build up their expectations for Phoenix's fifth LP, the 10 songs they finally received had many satisfied, yet asking, ‘is that all’? Known for consistent album-to-album improvement, Phoenix may have (arguably) done so from Wolfgang to Bankrupt, but only minimally. But then again, to go from excellent to excellent is, in itself, a praise-worthy achievement.