Trip-hop revivalists Phantogram shook the blogosphere in 2010 with their debut Eyelid Movies, an equally sensual and danceable album perfect for dark car rides to the club or to the bedroom. Tumblr’s dominance of the music scene, which brought mainstream eyes to the Tame Impalas, The Weeknds, and The xxs of the world, eventually faded, and the hazy, glitchy style was edged out by new fascinations like minimalist acoustic music and trap R&B. Phantogram understood this and collaborated with everyone from Miley Cyrus to Big Boi as they used their versatility to their advantage.
A decade after Eyelid Movies comes the duo’s latest effort Ceremony. Groups are expected to change and evolve, but when you compare the two, Ceremony feels less like a step forward and more like an insecure attempt at pop music.
Album opener “Dear God” sounds like a copy and pasted feel-good summer jam, complete with a distorted soul sample and a piano that begs to be clapped along to. It’s not quite a JCPenney commercial, but it’s definitely suited for a tinny retail speaker and bright lights. Like on 2018 single “Someday,” Sarah Barthel once again finds comfort in slow-bubbling synths and drums, making you feel like you’re swimming through a sparkling pool of molasses. Phantogram’s charm lies in the balance of the dark with the light, and Ceremony feels like a blindingly bright Friday night football game you can’t escape.
“Into Happiness” allows a glimpse into the band at their pop best, and the maximalist production mashing together Barthel’s vocals, ’80s synthesizers and shaky percussion sound familiar, but in a good way. Simply put, it’s gorgeous. The chorus, “Fall into happiness / Wish you could be here / No more loneliness / You make it perfect,” makes this the perfect tune for dance parties and summer playlists, and it almost sounds like it could soundtrack a ’90s teen thriller about a clingy girlfriend turned killer. It’s happiness, but with that unshakable feeling of impending darkness—a frequency Phantogram has long been tuned into throughout their career. “Love Me Now” is similar, with Barthel singing “What’s a loaded gun to me?” Impeccably raunchy-sounding guitars blare into the forefront during the chorus while her words softly reverberate underneath. These songs show that, despite the flashy clothes and bright lights, their skeleton is there, but it also shouldn’t be that hard to recognize.
Their identity crisis comes full circle in the second half of the album. The strange and almost comical “Mister Impossible” and “Gaunt Kids” are messy, and sound unfinished. Vocal manipulations and a standard drum loop are thrown together to create a poor attempt at a Phantogram song, like a haphazardly strewn-together code fed to an AI.
In between such atrocities are gems like “Glowing,” the barest track on the record. Barthel’s vocal chops shine over a lovely ambiance that commands your attention. With little instrumentation backing her up, there’s a greater emphasis on her lyrics, put fully on display here: “All I needed was for time to pass away / All I needed was to pass the time away,” she croons. There should have been more moments like this in the middle of the electro-pop frenzy, and we don’t get it until the end of the album.
Ceremony doesn’t feel like an expansion upon Phantogram’s previous work, but rather a haphazard attempt at pleasing their old audience while showing what else they can do. It works occasionally here, but the record’s highlights lack effectiveness when sandwiched between bombastic pop songs that don’t sound natural for them. What made their previous work so special was their ability to encompass the listener’s consciousness, looming over uncomfortable moments and allowing them to feel gratitude for the ensuing moments of relief. Ceremony lacks that control, and instead assumes the listener wants to be dragged around this disorienting hall of funhouse mirrors without looking into a mirror themselves.
Revisit Phantogram’s 2010 Daytrotter session: