Phoenix - Bankrupt! Album Review
Phoenix's new album Bankrupt! is a more complicated record than it may seem at first glance. Yes, opener 'Entertainment' has the expected and heady mix of synths and guitars that have propelled the French quartet to worldwide superstardom. But there's emotional turmoil hiding below the polished surface of album number five. That's perhaps why the record cover is more telling than you'd expect. An unimposing and bland still life of some fruit, it hints at Phoenix's art-rock credentials, but seems at odds with their songs, which aren't known for pondering self-reflection. However, once you dig a little deeper into Thomas Mars' silky vocals, you'll notice he feels isolated and alone. The initially innocuous record cover actually seems to be signposting the prevailing mood of Bankrupt!
There's little here musically that changes the successful formula of 2009's breakthrough Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. There are even a number of subtle nods throughout. 'Entertainment' sounds like a 21st century update of The Vapors' 'Turning Japanese', for example. Elsewhere the drum machines on 'The Real Thing' owe a debt to New Order, and the title track has been taking notes from fellow French pioneers Air. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the time closing track 'Oblique City' plays, Phoenix are channelling The Strokes and are certainly giving Casablancas and Co a run for their money. Yet none of these touches feel detrimentally derivative, instead they provide a sense of fun to proceedings.
But despite the upbeat melodies and pop tinged production, it's Mars' lyrics that provide some weight and balance to Bankrupt! He first hints that all may not be what it seems on 'Entertainment'. "I'd rather be alone" he declares during the chorus, as he makes a stand against conformity in celebrity circles. It's a theme that's made even more explicit during 'S.O.S. In Bel Air'. Mars illustrates a party scene where "idols are boredom to everyone" which leads to his chant of "alone, alone, alone". The vacuous nature of, and Mars' dissatisfaction with, his social circumstances are alluded to throughout with 'Chloroform' and 'Bourgeois' picking up the baton later in the album.
So while it may seem that Phoenix aren't musically bankrupt, there is a feeling here that they're not entirely happy with their newfound status. That's something they seem to want to address on the title track as they strip back their sound to something that's informed by the likes of Daft Punk, as much as eighties rock. The four-minute instrumental opening to 'Bankrupt!' is the standout moment on the album, because it pushes the possibilities for Phoenix. It's a tactic they've used before with tracks like 'Love Like A Sunset', but here it feels like a deliberate statement to place it in the middle of the record.
Bankrupt! is predominantly business as usual as an album then, but it's perhaps a sign that Phoenix are keen to make some changes. The only problem is that while it doesn't quite suffer from all the pitfalls of an album moaning about celebrity excess, just how interesting is it to hear a dissection of guest list living? Ultimately, your tolerance of that subject matter will inform your enjoyment of the overall experience. There's much here to like, but it lacks some of the charm that made Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix quite so endearing.
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