Unless you are Thomas Mars, Deck d’Arcy, Laurent Brancowitz or Christian Mazzalai, it is unlikely that you ever thought Phoenix would be where they are right now. When the band announced the title of their eventual mega-hit, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the absurdity of it in no way inspired the confidence that it would be a success. But it was, and radio stations played “1901” into the ground, though it never really got old the way something like Gotye has, and somehow the band was playing Madison Square Garden and Daft Punk was there and we were all happy for them because they had paid their dues and released so many good albums and now in 2013, when they are headlining Coachella, we are proud to have another band like The Black Keys or Arcade Fire whose growth seems organic and deserved and worth rooting for.
No way you saw that coming.
And, keeping with that theme, it would have been hard to predict the content and quality of Bankrupt!, Phoenix’s fifth LP and first as an indisputably big deal. But, only for reasons not representative of Phoenix’s arc. Phoenix’s first album as an arena-sized force, which seemed as sure of a bet as any, is a disappointment. Bankrupt! finds Phoenix on autopilot, expecting to be releasing strong work because, well, they are Phoenix and that is what they do, only their idea vault which always seemed stocked with goods is bare. And the band sounds like they just don’t know what to do.
Opening single “Entertainment” begins the album with a sort of “I Think I’m Turning Japanese” keyboard lick before launching into a vague recreation of “Lisztomania,” only less infectious and precise. The bass rumble of the intro, the unknowingly lost pre-chorus, the strange choir-enhanced bridge and the safe sanitation of the song’s entirety derail its obvious attributes (crisp production in the verse, the memorable lead and charisma). And whiffing on the album’s seemingly sure-fire hit foreshadows a collection full of problems.
Many songs sit between success and failure. “The Real Thing” has a payoff near the end of the chorus, with the caveat that you have to deal with a whole lot of meandering aimlessness in order to get there. Synthesizer tones provide structure to the album’s strongest tracks, “SOS In Bel Air” and “Oblique City,” but on “Bourgeois” and “Chloroform,” they appear to be all the songs have to offer. Bankrupt! has unifying elements running through it, typical of great albums, with the environment clearly defined and the songs clearly belonging together, as if they expected the magic to just arrive naturally, as they always had before. And they just didn’t. Bankrupt! is an album that is easy to excuse, only to the effect that the more you excuse its deficiencies, the more you realize you are making excuses for it. Little is bad, but little is memorable or exciting or even interesting.
“Drakkar Noir” is most frustrating in its “jingle jangle jungle” bullshit. The album’s title track comes close second, mostly because it employs the exact same trick that Phoenix used at the same point on their last album with “Love Like A Sunset 1 and 2,” an extensive electronic intro leading to an easy-on-the-ears melody that doesn’t really live up to the build-up. Likewise, “Trying To Be Cool” does a similar aping a song earlier, striking the same territory at the same point that Phoenix had previously on “Fences.” These crutch-like facsimiles of their previous successes feel lazy at the only time in Phoenix’s career where they have needed to deliver, where a misstep can’t be easily forgotten. Hopefully, Phoenix have set themselves up well enough to survive this hiccup, but if they don’t, they’ll be scratching their heads about this much in the way we all have about their success.