April 24, 2013

Test Spins: Phoenix, Bankrupt!

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They don’t write them like this anymore: 10 years and four albums in, French synth rockers Phoenix finally hit their stride with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a sleek and mammoth-sounding pop record with phasers set to kill and melodies destined to get stuck in your head. After countless commercial spots, critical plaudits (including a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album) and a recent Coachella headlining gig that saw them singing alongside R Kelly (!), it seems that Phoenix had made the unlikely late-career jump from moderately successful indie band to full blown rock stars. Now, four years later, we’re treated to Bankrupt!, the ironically titled fifth record from the band whose music could sell anything.

The fortunate thing for Phoenix is that following their smash hit doesn’t come with the same sort of pressure it would if this was their second album. They are a relatively known quantity; records like United and It’s Never Been Like That prove that they’ve been developing their Air-meets-The Strokes sound for a lot longer than just a minute. Still, a lot of people feel that Bankrupt! is Phoenix’s opportunity to put-up or shut-up, at least as far as their rock star ambitions are concerned — overall, they’ve succeeded quite wonderfully.

At this point Phoenix has developed a unique and characteristic sound that makes you immediately sit back and say, “Ah! This must be a Phoenix song.” From the opening of lead single “Entertainment,” you get a sense of what you’re going to be hearing here: enveloping neon synthesizers that recall the MarioKart 64 track Rainbow Road, tom-heavy drumbeats and, of course, Thomas Mars’ wailing lyrics that defy any real logic when viewed up close, but are an opportunity for fans to make mistakes that are, as Mars puts it, “better than the real lyrics are.” Like fellow inscrutable lyricist Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend), Mars’ real strength lies in his use of locations and references alongside romantic songwriting tropes in order to give an odd sense of context to commonplace emotions (“You’re Lancelot / 20-year-old and bored / Run for a better future” he instructs on “The Real Thing”). With Phoenix, the words mean nothing and everything at once.

Of course, it helps that all their songs sound genuinely huge. Even the lounge-groove of “Trying To Be Cool” is stadium-sized; it’s almost preposterous to think that Thomas Mars would ever feel insecure while prancing about in front of Madison Square Garden-sized audiences (though he might be getting a little help from that “mint julep testosterone”). The title track serves as this album’s version of “Love Like a Sunset”: A simmering tremolo pulse provides the foundation for an ambling synth melody that eventually fizzles into swirling, kaleidoscopic arpeggios before embarking onto the album’s most plaintive singing: “Forever is for everyone else / We’re off a couple secrets / Another lonely Tuesday home / Stolen kisses, is anyone near?” Phoenix do these suites well, and there are sure to be opportunities during their live sets for their light guy to really blow the audience away (when Phoenix played in Barton Hall back in 2010, the light-show was sublime).

Rock star ubiquity isn’t what it used to be. Instead of being plastered on teenage girls’ walls and being hounded by paparazzi, Phoenix will have to settle for soundtracking commercials and movie trailers. Regardless of its new definition, Bankrupt! shows Phoenix embracing rock stardom with style and aplomb. Though it loses steam towards its conclusion — the chorus of “Don’t,” for instance, outright murders the propulsive kick-snare rhythm of its verses — Bankrupt! is an almost aggressively self-aware pop record, with lyrical themes that trivialize the entire notion of fame and the fleetingness of success. Rife with insecurity, nigh unintelligible lyrics and intriguing song structures, Bankrupt! is not perfect; it’s a lot more interesting than that.

Original Author: James Rainis