I was first introduced to Phoenix a couple of years ago when I was still listening to Pandora a lot. One of the stations that I created kept popping up the songs “1901” and “Lisztomania”, which I thought sounded new and exciting. I kept meaning to check out the whole album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but I never got around to it. So when the band put out a new single “Entertainment” and had a new album coming out, I paid attention. Then I lucked out and found the deluxe edition of the Bankrupt! CD at my local Half Price Books a week after it hit the shelves. I was skeptical at it being in the used cds bins so soon, but I went ahead and bought it.
The album starts with the bright sparkling sounds of “Entertainment”, which under the surface seems to be written about the regrets of being in a relationship and appearing happy to put on a show for others. The music that goes with these lyrics however is joyous and obscures the intent if you aren’t paying attention. This is something that happens throughout the album. The lyrics are never blatant. They are almost to be taken one line and one thought at a time, painting a sometimes confusing picture. The song has become one of my favorites from the last year. I’m still unsure if the keyboards are real keyboards, or if it is a cassette tape being played and fast forwarded at the same time. The second track “The Real Thing” obviously uses the same drum machine that Prince utilized in his 1999/Purple Rain period. Vocalist Thomas Mars’ smooth vocal stylings make this one very enjoyable. This is one time where sampling the past actually turns into something fresh sounding. This is followed a very new wave track “S.O.S. In Bel Air” which seems to be about the apprehension of speaking to someone you like. Or not. That’s the frustration of trying to peel back the lyrics. At times I get the feeling the lyrics are simply there to sound nice more than to convey thoughts. But even with that, the song sounds great because the band is having fun in their retroness.
Next is possibly the most catchy song here, “Trying To Be Cool”. The keyboard line and funky bassline sound retro and new at the same time. Here again Mars makes strange lyrics like “mint julep testosterone” and “two dozen pink and white ranunculus” sound smooth and clever. And it’s a handclap song. It’s usually hard to go wrong with handclaps. “Bankrupt!” follows and takes us into far more experimental territory, the first two-thirds sounds like a session for some type of Daft Punk collaboration, exploring some strange and interesting keyboard rhythms over drum beats. Then this breaks and gives way to a portion that’s almost a folk ballad, albeit in their own electronic style. Annoying it fades out while he’s singing, as if this was just an afterthought.
Back to the happy stuff. Next is “Drakkar Noir” which paints a picture of a person trying hard to keep appearances, to an irresistible soundtrack that probably could be used in an actual advertisement for Drakkar Noir. Is it self-parody, or just completely unaware? In any case it’s one of the most fun tracks here. The keyboard line lingers and morphs into “Chloroform”, a track drenched in 80s drum machine and synth heaven. The lyrics are again weird and paint a picture of possibly a potentially lethal stalker. Or is this just stream of consciousness?
“Don’t” is up next with more of a rock beat and washes of old analog synths and lyrics like “You’re sophisticated. I saw the chandelier.” The beat reminds me a bit of Neon Bible era Arcade Fire. “Bourgeois” follows, which is a bit more strange with an almost out of tune keyboard providing the backdrop and some strange key changes. This gives way to the final track “Oblique City”, with lyrics like “It’s everything that I’ve ever known, Coca-Cola’s Rosetta Stone”. I *think* the song is supposed to be about the risk and promise of moving to a big city. Or not. But the band is tight here and the song bounces along happily whether we get it or not.
So the thing about Bankrupt! is that it’s full of life. The music successfully blends the old and the new. The only mildly annoying factor is that the sound is peaked so loud that there’s a lot of distortion. It kind of works as a counter to the very non-hard rock keyboards, but I’m pretty sure it was just recorded too hot (look up “loudness wars”). The lyrics might give you a headache if you try to fully decipher them. But if you relax and take it all in like one big picture, the lyrics blend nicely with the music and it works. Those with no patience can ignore them and dance along, and the pretentious can have long arguments over the scholarly meaning behind each syllable. So it’s different things for different people. I will add that the bonus disc in the deluxe edition is not for the patient. It include 71 demo idea snippets ranging from one second to two minutes each. So it’s a demo-quality soundbite collage that lasts just over an hour and giving a few ideas of what the embryonic stages of the songs (along with 61 others) sounded like. Unless you are a hardcore fan, stick with the single disc.
I do feel like this is a group of songs that I’ve kept coming back to this year, especially some of the catchier tunes. It was just interesting and enjoyable enough to win a place in my best albums of 2013.
You can get your own copy of Bankrupt! here:
Check out some videos and performances from the album:
“Trying To Be Cool”:
“The Real Thing” (Live at a SiriusXM Private Concert):