Phoenix - Bankrupt!
From the first punching chime of ‘Entertainment’ it’s clear that Phoenix, Gallic pop-rock superstars are back, and, contrarily, they mean business.
Phoenix have always been an immensely flexible band, flitting from the lounge-funk of United’s ‘If I Ever Feel Better’, the shades of early 2000s R&B to ‘Everything is Everything’, the post-Strokes garage-rock of ‘Long Distance Call’. But here the wholehearted embrace of synth-pop staples - i.e. a truckload of the former part of that equation, transposed through their core of the latter in their ambitious, inventive and eminently attractive songwriting - gives rise to an immense range of textures and flavours sonically: sweet matched with sharp, hard with soft, all delivered with zest and… I think I’m running out of fruit-related words to buzz off. The cover-art has evidently had a subliminal effect. JUICY MELODIES GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT – damn!
It’s an utterly intoxicating mix. Indeed, intoxication and its consequences seem to be the over-arching theme of the record, whether in the realm of celebrity, wealth, youth, or in particular, the romantic. The hopes, fluctuations and falsities that lie at the heart of all these, culminate into contradictions, crises and unexpected developments, and through such a lens appropriately each track rarely speaks with a singular frame of mind or feeling. With this in mind, the title of the record makes more sense: the potential for bankruptcy present in all human institutions, relationships and emotion; our frustrated incapacity for certitude summed up by the chorus of ‘Don’t’ – “I’ll never know / I’ll never know you”.
All of the above is perhaps best epitomised by the title-track. Structurally and sonically the closest we come to the atmospheric enormity of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s centrepiece: ‘Love Like A Sunset’. But where that track soared, ‘Bankrupt!’ rattles through movements and moods, ultimately to create a listening-sensation akin to holding onto the untied end of an increasingly inflating balloon, the nervous energy of its ‘Maps’- esque intro building and tracing through each of its movements, breaking out into manic idiophonic tinkling, arpeggiating synths and harpsichord and then strings, and then crashing downwards into Thomas Mars’ acoustic-backed ruminations on fashionistas, loneliness, self-deception and “Justice done”.
This grand thematic and sonic nexus aside though, it is through a general swan-diving into such an easily accessible, recognisable form as a pop-song, and then flipping and experimenting with the traditional expectations of these song-structures, that Phoenix, perhaps paradoxically, have made perhaps their most cohesively strong set-of-songs, and consequently their most distinctive, bold record to date.
There isn’t anything with the same absolute break-out vortex of verve as say ‘Lisztomania’ or ‘1901’ here, but instead Phoenix’s tenacious ear for hooks, addictive textures and refrains is spread over the course of each of these tracks, where before there might well have been more in the way of peaks and troughs.
One slightly flat moment aside in the form of ‘Trying to Be Cool’, nigh-on-wall-to-wall these songs are magnificent: ‘S.O.S. In Bel Air’ possesses an absolutely stratospheric, acceptably 80s vibrancy, (and its hook "You can't cross the line / But you can't stop trying" is going to slay at festivals this summer), whilst the entire second-half of the record is all killer. The drums on ‘Don’t’ somehow hammer like no-other on a record packed with the immaculately produced potent snap of the percussion, whilst ‘Bourgeois’ is almost M83-esque at points: capable of attaining immense, cinematic, grand heights.
But it is ‘Oblique City’ which emerges to lay the final blow. It’s one final burst of energetic everything overload, all breathless verses, woozy segues, hand-claps, keys and drums like towers collapsing. Finally though, we’re eased out with perhaps the most purely lush, organic instrumentation on the record: wistfully-plucked acoustic guitar with Mars’ hums over the top, serving to bring us out of shimmering, gorgeous overload into the reality of this exceptional record’s creation – that everything we’ve heard is produced is from the hands, feet, minds, and larynxes of this absolute treasure of a band.