By Maura McAndrew | 19 May 2013
Phoenix’s fifth album Bankrupt! is like a latter-day Brett Easton Ellis novel: day-glo champagne dreams with a nasty dark undercurrent, and blank-eyed protagonists who never mean what they say. Or at least that’s how it sounds to me. Phoenix is not a band for concept albums; in fact, their lyrics are deliberately vague and at times nonsensical. The closest thing we get to a mantra comes in the frothy “Bourgeois”: “We’re destined, wise, and we socialize.” With Phoenix, the mood is the message, and that’s true more than ever on Bankrupt!, which like its career-defining predecessor Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009), is an irresistible, glossy, yet coherent pop album. Though it may fall short of the ecstasy of Saint Wolfgang, that’s hardly a reasonable bar to set.
Bankrupt! crackles with a delightfully chintzy 1980s sound and a Duran Duran sneer, inspiring the unspeakable urge to buy a pair of gaudy sunglasses, preferably the iridescent mirrored kind with a neon lanyard. The album conjures fantasies of yachts and poolside cocktails, and it surely sounds best through the thick plastic slats of a sun lounger (particularly lines like “Scandinavian leather / Drakkar Noir” and “Cristal or Bamboo?”). In fact, Bankrupt! would be an apt soundtrack for this week’s Cannes Film Festival, with its reputation as a playground for the young and obscenely wealthy and the high-priced escorts who get paid to love them. I may be going off on a tangent here, but Phoenix is a band about heady feelings, and Bankrupt! dwells in the languorous, not the literal.
The breakout star of Bankrupt! is “The Real Thing,” with its breathy summer boredom and beat straight out of Fine Young Cannibals’ 1989 smash “She Drives Me Crazy.” Like other tracks on Bankrupt!, “The Real Thing” isn’t exactly an anthem. It builds and crashes and makes you wait just long enough before bursting into its catchy chorus. The band employs this tactic to great effect throughout, keeping things interesting and rewarding repeat listens, as on the woozy “S.O.S. in Bel Air,” “Trying to be Cool,” and “Drakkar Noir.” The latter is an especially good example of Bankrupt!’s talent for withholding: most of the song is comprised of purposefully crisp, flat verses, but the fireworks come out toward the end, with Thomas Mars crying “’til-I-die-‘til-I-die-’til-I-die!” over suddenly kaleidoscopic synths. On second listen, then, the song is forever changed—a slow build to a sure payoff instead of just a meandering exercise.
Halfway through, the flow of Bankrupt! is interrupted by what’s become a Phoenix touchstone—the slow-building instrumental intermission. “Bankrupt!”, like the “Love Like a Sunset” suite from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is a lengthy trickle of singing synths, jittering guitars, and psychedelic harpsichord; a break that feels unnecessary while it’s happening but ultimately adds a great deal to the album’s flow. Wolfgang, spectacular album that it was, would have felt rushed and overblown without this break, and Bankrupt likewise benefits from it. When Mars comes in for a brief, dreamy rumination at the end, “Bankrupt!” works as an interlude lyrically as well, as he free associates on the record’s quasi-theme in his smooth, lacquer-shiny voice: “Caledonian, rich, and young / Self-entitled portrait / Court in session, justice done.”
While the beginning of the record feels as cheerfully indulgent as a newly waxed Ferrari, later on songs like the plodding, creaking slow jam “Chloroform,” the band inches closer to a dangerous sense of nihilism. “I don’t always tell the truth,” Mars repeats blankly, just to ask a mere verse later, “Why would I lie to you?” Similarly, the dreamy chorus of “Bourgeois” pulses with a minor key queasiness. While it would be nice to see the band take these dark currents further, that’s not really Phoenix’s style. On Bankrupt! we get only some subtle flaws in a polished veneer, but it’s enough to keep things interesting.
Phoenix has somehow managed to follow a universally acclaimed breakout record with one that not only avoids falling flat, but succeeds at creating and sustaining a subtly different atmosphere. Perhaps the best surprise of Bankrupt!—one that reveals itself over time—is its tight cohesion, and the band’s allegiance to mood even while attempting to complicate the dynamics of their songs. It’s a concept album where the concept is nebulous: it’s a feeling, a mindset, a set of references held together by the band’s chemistry, that way they have of layering sounds and textures, and of granting us permission to interpret it all in any ludicrous way we choose.