When Phoenix exploded into the indie-pop stratosphere with its fourth album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, some critics and fans asked, “Why now?”
The French quartet had been kicking about in semi-obscurity for a decade, releasing three albums of sculpted catchiness and sonic quirkiness before Wolfgang. Internationally, critics were swooning hard, but basically nobody outside of their home country was buying their music. 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That was an airtight slab of post-Strokes guitar chug and stadium-sized hooks, a should-have-been-huge release that landed at 13 on Pitchfork’s year-end list but sold only 36,000 copies in the United States.
What separated Wolfgang from the band’s previous three albums was its sense of ADD urgency. This was slick, decidedly modern music built for the short attention spans of the shuffle-mode generation: nine tracks, 37 minutes, and one buzzing, synth-drizzled chorus after the next. Singles like “1901” and “Lisztomania” were perfectly tailored for the flashy car commercials that licensed them. And what followed was an avalanche of high-profile accolades: crashing the late night circuit, the Billboard charts, even the Grammys, where Phoenix won Best Alternative Music Album in 2010. But even if Wolfgang was an easy fix—a cocaine-snort of a pop album—it was also substantive, full of nimble playing (the intricate disco rhythms on “Fences,” the moody synth gestations on “Love Like a Sunset”) and Thomas Mars’ oddly intriguing lyrics, which sounded like random fragments generated from a malfunctioning French-to-English online translator.
But instead of capitalizing on their snowballing success, Phoenix took its sweet time crafting a follow-up. It’s been four long years since Wolfgang, a drought which seems to suggest one of two options: They’ve either been sweating out the pressures of sequel hype or quietly plotting their subversive next move. The answer, it turns out, is neither. Bankrupt! (Glassnote) is a logical extension of their trademark style, playing like the woozy hangover after Wolfgang’s decadent night out. That said, there are subtle new colors rippling throughout the new album: exotic pentatonic scales, a shift from modern to vintage synthesizers. The most notable advance is a more holistic sense of pacing—instead of bashing your head against the wall with sheer velocity, Bankrupt! is an album of peaks and valleys, balancing expansiveness (lead single “Entertainment”) with subdued moodiness (the ambient title-track).
This is exactly the sort of album Phoenix needed to make. Bankrupt! is catchy enough to keep the band commercially viable, but also strange enough to shed their fair-weather friends—the ones who jumped on the bandwagon after falling for that song from that commercial. The album opens with “Entertainment,” the most obvious hit in the bunch. And even for Phoenix standards, it’s an absolute doozy: megawatt drums, palm-muted riffs, a chanted coda, an effortless synth hook that coils like a snake. Mars’ words remain as impenetrable as ever (“I love, I love, I love, I notice/I heard it all before I died, before I knew you/Once upon a time would take too long”), but there’s a sense of mystery in those tangled webs. Superficially, his lyrics read like an alternate English, but they sound profound when Mars sings them, every syllable bouncing through the mix like a ping-pong ball. (Phoenix songs seem custom-built for those music videos with the bouncing lyric balls.)
It’s the album’s most heart-stopping moment. Not that Bankrupt! is lacking in melody—it just takes a bit longer to sink in. Much of the album carries a frosty early ’80s sheen, and the guitars (when they’re played at all) are dwarfed by the bass and synth. “The Real Thing” is a candy-coated blast of drum loops and deafening bass, but it’s soothing and trippy—never chasing an inevitable chorus explosion. “Bankrupt!” mirrors Wolfgang’s “Love Like a Sunset,” splitting the album in two with an extended instrumental drone; but where that latter track built from an ambient instrumental pulse to a rousing climax, “Bankrupt!” is content to simmer in an Eno-like calm. “Bourgeois” is the album’s emotional heartbeat—and its most deceptively complex track, changing keys from reflective acoustic verses to a chorus of shimmering haze.
Bankrupt! might not be Phoenix’s immediately lovable album, but it’s definitely their most important. After an unexpected dalliance with stardom, they sound wiser and weirder than ever.