In the lead-up to the release of “Bankrupt!,” it’s become clear that the Phoenix marketing team is probably as good at whipping up rabid anticipation among fans as the group is at writing songs. The most definitive evidence came a little over a week ago. At the end of their Coachella set, the group invited a much-anticipated surprise guest on stage. Everybody thought it would be Daft Punk. Instead, R. Kelly emerged to sing a live mash-up of “1901” and “Ignition (Remix).” Frontman Thomas Mars stood at the back of the stage looking aimless. Record execs likely began popping Cristal in stretch Navigators. And then the internet blew up.
The gesture seems a neat encapsulation of Phoenix’s latest release, “Bankrupt!” The album is a collection of mostly well-produced, hypnotically rhythmic, and catchy songs, but they feel strangely extroverted, trendy, and bombastic. Breakout albums “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” and “It’s Never Been Like That” managed to be simultaneously joyful and bittersweet—beautiful, tightly constructed pop concoctions. “Bankrupt!” verges on being unbearably hip.
This album is less personal than some of the group’s more recent releases. Lyrically, the focus is on status-obsessed characters (mostly unattainable women) of the sort one probably meets a lot in the band’s hometown, Versailles, France. Like all Phoenix albums, though, the lyrics are nearly incomprehensible and always secondary to the music. Yet, the subject matter jars with Phoenix’s signature tone. Throughout the album, Phoenix shie from unleashing the unadulterated joy and bittersweetness they’ve marked as uniquely theirs over the past decade. Instead, they cloister such moments in small choruses or brief climactic releases. The guilelessness of their first two records seems an almost shameful tendency in the context of this more ironic record. It’s still fun, and it still sounds like Phoenix, yet somehow they feel absent.
Aside from such rare moments of release, the album’s strongest points are its swaggering grooves. Gone are the warm, breathy synths of the past two records. In their place, the group substitutes saturated bass sounds and heavy drums, pushing the lighter syncopated guitars to the back of the mix. “Trying to be Cool” rides a slow-burning bass part as Mars sings the impossibly catchy, taunting refrain “Tell me that you want me / Tell me that you want it all.” You can practically hear him sneer through the speakers. In such moments, the group admirably displays its love for American R&B and soul.
“Drakkar Noir” shows the same formula gone awry, though. Its title is taken from an expensive men’s fragrance, and, though the mostly impenetrable, glossolalic lyrics—“In the jangle jungle / Jingle junkie, juggle juggle me”—maintain a critical distance from its title’s frivolity, the song still feels strangely empty. Like most of the album, the soundscape is built on muddy, psychedelic synthesizers reminiscent of Neon Indian. It’s loud, fussy, and largely forgettable. For about thirty seconds at the end, though, the song surges on Thomas Hedlund’s pounding toms to a blissful climax.
The end of “Drakkar Noir” succeeds because Mars and the group open up. The band unleashes the full force of its tight rhythm section in a joyfully frantic build as Mars wistfully crows, “How I wish I knew you from before.” But the release is all too brief and follows a mostly unremarkable, assaulting song. Similarly, “Bourgeois” opens with a glistening synth line that swells into one of the album’s most ecstatic moments just before pulling back to a somber acoustic part where Mars sings of yet another status-obsessed woman. She is also unattainable. When the opening returns as the chorus, it’s accompanied with a melodic hook—Mars singing the song’s title.
The penultimate spot on “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” went to “Girlfriend,” a song only Phoenix could write. The lyrics are actually impossible to understand, and an official set doesn’t exist online. There’s a pretty broad divergence between versions, especially on the second verse. Two dominant interpretations are “Well, you’re far from home / I am with you now. / I am lonely / I’m loneliness, too” and “We are far from home / I am with you now / I am longing you / I am longing us two.” The way the song sounds, it could be either. It contains both a lonely hurt and a loving joy—it could be a break-up song or the celebration of someone beloved. That fullness and emotional expanse combined with unbeatably enjoyable music always made Phoenix’s songs feel as if something is at stake—like the songs really mattered, and that Mars’s lyrics would too if you could just understand them. “Bankrupt!” is still catchy, and it’s good to drive or dance to. But it feels like it matters less.
—Staff writer Ben Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org