Phoenix — the cool cats of Versailles — had probably given up on the idea of ever becoming popular in the States by the time they released their fourth album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. But, to everyone’s surprise, the album became an enormous success here. Its blend of irresistible pop hooks and sophisticated art rock pleased mainstream pop fans and discerning critics alike with the singles “Lisztomania” and “1901” catching on like wildfire. To my ears, they were the beautiful lovechild of Franz Ferdinand and Daft Punk and I couldn’t get enough.
Looking at the cover of their new album, Bankrupt!, which features a bright pink cherry blossom and a luscious-looking peach, one might speculate that the band have sought to make an even more colorful and artsy album this time around. Both of those assumptions would be correct. Recorded in Paris and New York City with Philippe Zdar of the French electronic music duo Cassius co-producing, Bankrupt! couldn’t possibly be a better follow-up to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. On one hand, the band have delivered at least a few songs that are just as catchy, sure to please even bubblegum pop fans. On the other hand, the band have grown a bit more experimental, expanding their palette, which should please their pickier listeners as well.
The album opens with the tone-establishing lead single “Entertainment,” which begins with a sparkling synth riff that would seem borrowed from 1970’s Japanese music and it’s surely a deliberate homage, given that there’s a cherry blossom on the cover. (For further proof that it’s an intentional throwback, see the video for the song below.) That riff proves to be the driving force behind the shiny gem, beaming higher than the groovy guitars, which only get the spotlight during the verses. The synth is second only to Thomas Mars’ crystal clear and charismatic vocals. If it seems like a case of style over substance, one only needs to pay attention to the lyrics, which would seem to be from the perspective of a guy who’s reluctantly accepted the fact that his lover only wants to show him off. “Entertainment, show them what you do with me,” begins the chorus. Then again, the chorus ends with the line “I’d rather be alone,” so perhaps the guy isn’t going to take his lover’s shit any longer. Either way, the lyrics are deeper and darker than you’d expect from such an addictive synth-fest.
As the album continues, “The Real Thing” has similarly bright synth, but it’s the chunky percussion that dominates the delicious earworm, splitting the difference between Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” “Almost, almost, almost the real thing, how could I have missed that one,” Mars ponders, the lyrics again deeper than the song’s sheen would suggest. There are, however, plenty of songs on the album that truly are as light-hearted as they sound. The disco-funk flavored “Drakkar Noir,” for example, is a satirical tune with lyrics that could have been written by Bret Easton Ellis. Named after a popular but gaudy early ’90’s cologne, it finds Mars taunting, “How come everyone knows you before they meet you?” He’s all the more standoffish in “Chloroform,” which is like the Pet Shop Boys on benzos, declaring, “I don’t only think of you, as untitled, insecure, chloroform.”
The nearly seven minutes long “Bankrupt,” which is sans vocals for the first five minutes, is easily the album’s most experimental track and the one that best utilizes Zdar’s electro-minded production skills, though its dreamy first segment is more reminiscent of another French duo, Air. The ambient second part of the song could easily be a Cassius tune, however. By the time Mars begins singing, one is inclined to forget that one is listening to a Phoenix record. Even then, the lyrics are more poetic than Mars usually writes. “Caledonian rich and young, self-entitled portrait, court in session, justice done,” he sings. You can give the lyrics some thought or you can simply get lost in the brilliant haze, something that rings true for all of the songs on the winning album.