Release Date: April 23, 2013
At the close of Coachella’s second night, an interpreter stood awash in the main stage’s LED glow, translating the lyrics of Phoenix fronthomme Thomas Mars into sign language. This is fascinating, given that Mars’ lyrics are famously inscrutable, a frequently misheard and karaoke-mangled canon that nonetheless charmed anyone exposed to his indie-pop outfit’s semi-self-titled breakthrough outing, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Euphoric enough to help sell luxury sedans during a Great Recession, inventive enough to tickle critics of all stripes, and agreeable enough to secure a Grammy, it was everything to everyone. And finally, after a decade and three albums together, four soft-spoken friends from sleepy Versailles were catapulted to 2013 headlining paydays at Lollapalooza and, yes, Coachella, ostensibly in front of audiences with much higher expectations than before.
Which brings us back to the interpreter. In the run-up to Wolfgang‘s long-awaited successor, Bankrupt!, Phoenix have been bookending their live sets with “Entertainment,” a bit of conceptual derring-do obscured by mountains of major chords. It’s as prismatic and propulsive and unshakable as anything they’ve yet released, but it’s also a different version of Phoenix: open to interpretation, hinting at conflict. “Headline from this day on,” Mars sings, as if to acknowledge where they’ve been and where they’ll be going for the foreseeable future. And at its close, in a high-arching falsetto: “What I once refused to be / Is everything they long together / I’d rather be alone.” Three years ago, an onstage interpreter was an unnecessary luxury. But now, a weightless, largely unknowable rock band offers a glimpse of what it’s like when millions of fans are actively trying to figure you out.
Much like the rest of Bankrupt!, “Entertainment” is slightly and deliciously askew, its central melody (a Chinese-inflected riff derived from Ethiopian scales) built and blistered with electronics. “We called the new album Ludwig Van Phoenix and thought it could be a partner to the last one,” Mars told SPIN earlier this month. “That idea lasted less than an hour.” What they’ve crafted instead is an immense, wonderfully textured pop record whose melodic foundations are comprised almost entirely of synths.
That inversion expresses itself in psychedelic fashion. The absence of spring-loaded, interlocking guitar work — lifted, it’s been said, from the Strokes, a band with which Phoenix are now intersecting, stylistically, in real time — has made for slower tempos and plusher ambience. Where synths were once used as garnish or trampolines (see Wolfgang hit “1901”), now they mist and marinate songs from start to finish, as on the largely instrumental “Bankrupt!” or “S.O.S. in Bel Air,” an early, sometimes breezy highlight that stuffs two refrains (“You can’t cross the line / But you can’t stop trying,” is the first; “Alone” is the second) and a fleet of glittering chords into the same cloudy space. Elsewhere, the seasick keys and jackknifing transitions of “Trying to Be Cool” sound like a track oozed out of Ariel Pink’s workshop, to mention a discomfiting artist who’s not that far removed stylistically from these guys.
For example: “I think we were really drawn to themes that seemed really unusual or overlooked somehow,” Mars also told Stereogum recently. “There was a real fascination for things that were unused or mediocre or cheap. There was this fantasy to give beauty to things that might not usually be celebrated.” Case in point: “Drakkar Noir,” a shimmering, harpsichord-sampling confection that, in addition to referencing the ubiquitous Guy Laroche cologne (first released in 1982), finds Mars enjoying a moment of clarity. Not long after he sings, “In the jangle jungle / Jingle junkie, juggle juggle me / A better standard than mediocre,” he asks, a little bit more straightforwardly, “Why would we have to know? / Do we have to know what truth is?”
In the wake of Wolfgang‘s runaway success, far-reaching philosophical questions about Phoenix (is this high art posing as fluff, or the other way around?) have yielded intriguing. While nothing on Bankrupt! is as streamlined or immediate as its predecessor; this is the sound of a much better band than the one we fell in love with back in 2009, a heady follow-up on which they embrace their influences anew. (It was mixed with the same console Quincy Jones and Bill Swedian used on Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1983, bought by the band on eBay for a relatively meager 17k. “It’s an ear madeleine,” Mars told the New Yorker, the Proust-to-MJ connection being as clear a vision of his band as you’re gonna get.)
The resulting album blurs the lines between simple and sophisticated more effectively than Phoenix ever have before. Its radiant final third, from “Chloroform” to “Don’t” to “Bourgeois,” is arguably their richest stretch of songs yet, and exactly what you’d hope for from a band in Phoenix’s position: They view daunting expectations as an opportunity to move forward. Consider the way Mars begins and ends one of two spare, slightly different verses in “Bourgeois,” alone with just a distant acoustic guitar: “Darling, you’ll never know / When you’re less than kind of done… / You’ll learn from all of us / When your time is up.” They’re not waiting around to find out.