In 2009, Phoenix’s release Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix set the indie rock world quietly ablaze. Beginning with credibility built from strong but measured critical reception over the course of nearly a decade, the band’s fourth studio album came flying out of the gates, bridging a critically adored status into chart success undoubtably aided by an incessantly played Cadillac commercial. The energetic, precise pop of singles “1901” and “Lisztomania” propelled Phoenix into the upper echelon of guitar-rock headliners but the support from deeper cuts like the emotive “Love Like A Sunset”, the propulsive “Lasso” and the subtler “Rome” are what made Wolfgang a beginning-to-end cohesive record.
Four years later, the Versailles quartet has returned with Bankrupt!, its first statement as a band with arena-filling and Coachella-top-tier status. The album is an impressive display of impeccable production, with a pristine use of synthesizers and general ability to tap into the magic of danceable ’80s pop. Along the way though, it overshadows the more organic charm bolstered on their previous efforts and creates a more unwelcoming wall of white noise.
Opening track and lead single “Entertainment” implements a vaguely Asian keyboard melody and galloping beat to somewhat underwhelming effect. The general structure matches the Phoenix of old but instead of the snappy appeal of “Lizstomania”, it cranks the volume on everything and plunges face-first into power-pop territory. “The Real Thing” is a similar story. The tried and true Phoenix vehicle built on rhythm, earnest vocals and major key melodies is present but it’s been run through a glamorous drive-thru of gaudy production, adding layers of glimmering instruments, echoes and, most notably, a low, buzzing synthesizer that dominates the song.
“SOS In Bel Air” is the first track that successfully establishes the record’s tricky tone. “Drakkar Noir” and “Don’t” fit into the same category; each song finds the band tastefully exploring the wider reach a hit record allows you, introducing bigger elements without straying too far from their roots. As is the case with most of the album, I wish the best of luck to anyone attempting to decipher Thomas Mars’ lyrics. Silky smooth as they may be, per usual, the bon mots and musings sprinkled throughout the record are mostly unintelligible and slurred together.
Despite the occasional missteps, sticking to the basic formula mostly benefits Phoenix on Bankrupt!. However, where the line might need to be drawn is at the 7-minute space voyage we’re taken through by the title track. Just like with “Love Like A Sunset” on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and “North” off It’s Never Been Like That, “Bankrupt” is a slow building, minimalistic track that strikes mid-album. Unlike those previous tracks, this time it’s a lull instead of a highlight, failing to reach the climactic heights of its predecessors and instead has you eyeing the timer.
If Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was the band hitting its stride, then it’s likely that Bankrupt! is the music playing during its medal ceremony. It’s not a radical step forward but it’s not a regression either. After years and years of putting in the work, the French group has earned its recognition and the right to make an album that perhaps indulges itself a bit.