Phoenix experienced a fairly intense surge of popularity in late 2009, following (and anticipating) the release of what could be called their watershed moment: the album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and its popular singles “1901” and “Lisztomania.” But Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was not the great reexamination of form for the veteran pop group that critics hailed it as – in fact it was fairly reverent in its continued patience for the bright, dance-tinged indie pop that Phoenix first started to develop in the late nineties. But it was a hallmark nonetheless and so the question became: where could the band possibly go from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and how could a follow-up ever live up to that album’s reputation? Not surprisingly, Bankrupt! is not as monumental an album as Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix; not nearly as grand and multinational an achievement for the French indie stars. Don’t let that alarm you, though; Bankrupt! is about as superficially enjoyable an indie pop gut-punch as its predecessor, and perfectly worthy of the Phoenix “brand.”
It would be difficult to accuse Phoenix of not knowing how to write great pop songs, which the tracks on Bankrupt! almost undeniably are. Every song follows impressive hooks across spine-tingling chord progressions, all daintily supported by Thomas Mars’ impeccable sense of pop vocalization. Unfortunately, most of the songs – especially opener and lead single “Entertainment” and the even more impressive second track “The Real Thing” – tend towards a crowded production style that provides the listener with very little in terms of a fail space at the lower-end of the dynamic spectrum. This is an album that’s meant to be taken in a very direct way, like a shot of cough syrup that you’re surprised to find is not repulsive – something that can live up to the title’s ironic punctuation. The steep electronica learning curve also reminds of the bands shared genealogy with Daft Punk, though the production on Bankrupt! is more indie-oriented, and less dance perfect, than anything in the Daft Punk canon.
Bankrupt!’s synthpop is also steeped in a darker, more nearly experimental canon than Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, though not by much. The doom-synth pop freakout of “Drakkar Noir” has the tonal pedigree of acts like Ariel Pink, and Phoenix seem perfectly comfortable – here and on the next track, “Cholroform” – blending moody synth music into very bright and very listenable pop songs, without falling for the synthesizer’s propensity towards dour and artificial sounding house music. Bankrupt! feels like a living, heaving thing, with each digital element carefully offset by live guitars and crisp, unaided vocals. Though it is often unclear exactly what Thomas Mars is doing lyrically, his vocals add a consistent strain of nasalized gumption, and provide for some of the album’s most stunning melodic hooks. His voice is as much an instrument as the Mazzalai brothers’ guitars or Deck d’Arcy’s bass, though the coda of “Chloroform” provides for an intimate vocal moment that seems to step through the song’s (and Phoenix’s) pop-separatist veneer.
“Don’t” is a wildly catchy piece of synthpop that is a little too “Brooklyn” and far too atmospheric to ever emerge as a single (though I’m prepared to eat my words on this point); the penultimate “Bourgeois” feels sort of obligatory, almost as though it’s here to keep an already trim album from dipping below a ten-track threshold. “Bourgeois” is exceptionally well-written, but it doesn’t belong on an album like Bankrupt!, where it will not get the dynamic (and more explicitly acoustic) support it absolutely deserves. In a sense, the song fails because it tests way out of its class: it is the perfect opportunity for Phoenix to showcase their instrumental mettle, but it’s squeezed onto an album that requires very little. Handled by a band like Air, who have always been more considerate of the acoustic, “Bourgeois” may have fared a little better, but here it is disappointing. Such disappointment does not necessarily plague Bankrupt! as a whole, though – the album is not nearly as disappointing as it is adequate. Phoenix shot for the middle and they hit another bullseye; what more is there to say?