Critical Voices: Phoenix, Bankrupt!

April 25, 2013

In its first album since emerging into the forefront of the music scene with hit-filled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in 2009, Phoenix takes a slight gamble with Bankrupt! as the band attempts to achieve the delicate balance between pushing artistic boundaries and embracing its relatively recent surge into mainstream music. Despite the stark similarities in sound and structure, Bankrupt! diverges from its predecessor in that it exhibits less cohesion and more confusion, particularly in its lyrics. However, the musical veterans do not disappoint in this amalgamation of recognizable vocals and excedingly synthesized sounds.

Phoenix kicks off the album with “Entertainment,” an upbeat track reminiscent of the lighthearted dynamism heard in 2009 single “1901.” The thick keyboard on the chorus grounds this otherwise airy tune, complete with Asian influences and a catchy melody. “The Real Thing,” slows down the pace, as a drum machine emanates ‘80s vibes to create a steady, bass-heavy backbeat. “S.O.S. in Bel Air” stands out as a remarkable layering of guitar, drums, synthesizers, and even maracas, all of which coalesce into a hypnotic hook complemented by hype instrumentals.

To characterize the title track as anticlimactic would be an understatement, since “Bankrupt!” includes a nearly five-minute build-up to two minutes of melancholic vocals that simply fade out and allow the listener to break out of the confused trance induced by this overly forced endeavor of a song.

The second half of the album continues with consistent reverberations of classic Phoenix quirkiness and exuberance, most notably in “Drakkar Noir” and “Oblique City.” The band even exerts a kind of pretentiousness characteristic of Georgetown students in the title of the song “Bourgeois,” in which the tension and ambitious arrangement seen throughout the rest of the album simmer down just enough to allow Mars’s aural magic to resonate freely through the track.

What the album lacks in lyrical excellence it makes up for in harmonic intricacy, and although similar in sound to many of its previous albums, Phoenix yet again reminded us why it has been around and thriving for the past sixteen years. Arguably the leaders of indie synth-pop, the French quartet demonstrated their ability to adjust to the idea of being more mainstream artists without abandoning their distinct voice. Defined by the kind of kinetic energy that pervades summer nights and open roads, it begs to be heard.

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