Imagine an archeological dig thousands of years from now. Our civilization has been all but wiped out and the denizens of the future are searching beneath the sands of time for remnants from 2013 A.D. What evidence of sophistication and culture will they unearth? Why is 2013 even worth remembering?
Phoenix’s new album “Bankrupt!” seems to wrestle with similar questions. The album artwork complements the album title–it seems devoid of any real meaning. The art strikes me as a bit Warholian–it could’ve been pulled right off a generic can of peaches. The title, “Bankrupt!” implies that underneath all the trappings of 21st century life, there lies a puzzling emptiness. Lyrically, you’ll find an increased sense of loneliness and isolation. In the midst of the electronic dance music present on nearly every track (things get a bit more synth-heavy this time around), there stands a guy who just wants to leave the party. “I’d rather be alone,” he remarks on opening track “Entertainment”.
“Entertainment” seems to be a farewell ode to previous blockbuster album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” a worldwide hit that turned the indie popsters into rock stars. Standout tracks like “Lisztomania” and “1901” were found in car commercials and on best-of lists for 2009. In “Drakkar Noir”, lead singer Thomas Mars muses about being juggled around the “Jingle Jungle”–the new territory of success that Phoenix has been bushwhacking through ever since.
The third track, “SOS in Bel Air” echoes the album’s rallying cry as Mars repeats “Alone” right before posing the upper-crust quandary: “Crystal or Bamboo?” While there are aspects of fame that the band surely enjoys, there are numerous moments in “Bankrupt!” where they take pot-shots at the jet-set.
In interviews with Pitchfork and Spotify, the band members themselves have said they are now more fascinated by the mundane than they are by the luxurious. Lyrics from the album, written and sung by frontman Mars (and delivered in his trademark, stream-of-consciousness style) reference cultural opposites like “Scandinavian leather” and “Coca Cola”, often in the same breath.
Indeed, the instrumentation of the album follows a similar arc. Thrift-store keyboard sounds and 80’s synth washes are paired with sleek drums and the funky, muted guitar tones that “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” used to great effect.
When I first heard “Wolfgang” in 2009, it seemed like a natural progression for the band as they ably mixed synth pop elements and no-effects guitar riffs from their two previous efforts “Alphabetical” and “It’s Never Been Like That”. “Bankrupt!” continues in that trend, blurring the lines between synth and guitar, drum machine and drum kit. On tracks like “Trying to Be Cool” and “Chloroform”, long-time fans will find welcome echoes of the band’s earlier sound.
The title track is the mid-album instrumental detour, now a staple of any Phoenix release. This one doesn’t come close to matching the musical intensity of “Love Like a Sunset”, and sounds more like a few musical sketches sewn together. However, it is worth it if you make it to the final section where the acoustic guitar finally makes an appearance, underpinning wonderfully sardonic lyrical material “Caledonian, rich and young, self-entitled portrait, forever is for everyone else.”
It took me about 6 listens to get into this album. At first, I was tempted to believe Phoenix had hit their artistic plateau. Now, I’m touting it as their best record to date, both musically and lyrically. The vocal delivery is a little more melodic and unrestrained. The synth lines are never too deliberate–in fact, they are often played with all the confidence of someone crawling around the keyboard trying to find a certain pitch.
While some of the songs can get a little samey (especially “Don’t”), it is best to approach this record as an album-length collection of great hooks. I often found myself humming parts from three different tracks all in a row. They flow together that well. In recent live performances, Phoenix does the same thing, combining elements from different songs into medley form. The deluxe edition of the album includes an hour-long diary of demo material. If it weren’t for the difference in production value, you might not notice a big difference between the two.
While Mars’ lyrics are often too obfuscated to be emotionally resonant, there are a few moments on the album where he opens up. On “Bourgeois”, (a great track that almost didn’t make it onto the album) he sings to a girl stuck working at a cruise ship bar. “We’re destined, wise and we socialize. Bourgeois, why would you care for more?”
We now return to our futuristic archeologists as they uncover a giant neon sign. It says “Enjoy Coca Cola” in three different languages. According to the album’s final track “Oblique City”, it’s “Coca Cola’s Rosetta Stone”. I recommend that you pick up a copy of “Bankrupt!” It’ll be a great record to pull out when your kids ask you what 2013 was like.
Guest Blog Post Thanks to: Tom Brinton. Tom has been heavily involved in the music scene for years now. Tom spent two and half years with Classical 89 radio as an announcer and producer. During his time with the station he spearheaded a show called Friday Favorites. In his spare time, Tom has helped to create several album art cover designs. Tom has played in a plethora of different bands and still does. One of his most recent band successes is with The New Electric Sound, a band originating the Provo, Utah area.