Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was one of those rare albums that brought my siblings and I together. I might get lucky and inspire a brother of mine to listen to a single song I love, or another brother will spontaneously ask if I’ve heard of Bat For Lashes (in a manner which always echoes Aziz Ansari’s cousin Darwish), but for a whole album to be adopted and become the new soundtrack to every car journey? I’d never known of such things in my bloodline, and when those same siblings excitably joined me to see Phoenix live, I thought a new dawn was rising. Fittingly, one might even say they were all “sick for the big sun” (myself included).
It didn’t last, though, and we still live our lives with our differing music tastes, but it made clear that Wolfgang was a special album that had a lot of power. It was consistently fun, enjoyable, and danceable–still is to this day–and it thrust Phoenix into the limelight, as they went from minor indie stars to full-fledged headlining, Grammy-winning, Saturday Night Live-ing goliaths. At the time Wolfgang seemed invincible in some respects, that it might last for a long, long time, and considering what might follow it seemed pointless to ponder. We’re four years on from that time, and Phoenix have returned with Bankrupt!, an album that they didn’t want to copy its predecessor, but one that can’t help but live in its shadow.
And it’s kind of odd that Wolfgang looms so high over Bankrupt! as this time round they sound louder than ever. For most part the sprightly piano riffs and intertwining guitars from before have been replaced with synths, while the pummelling drums give way to drum machines. Producer Philippe Zdar certainly puts his stamp on the album, but the band come off sounding like they’re caught in between, struggling to shake the off the pop shackles they’ve built their reputation on, and to devote themselves to a more daring experimental path. The struggle is encapsulated kind of perfectly on “SOS in Bel Air” with the line, “When you can’t cross the line/ But you can’t stop trying.”
The struggle isn’t entirely bad, and though their songs are driven forward with synths, they still niggle their way into your head–helped by Mars’ pristine and coolly delivered lyrics and vocal melodies. Lead single “Entertainment” is the best example of this–and arguably the best song on Bankrupt!–as it flashes its title like neon lights in a big city. Like “Lisztomania,” it’s the kind of song which could only ever work as the opening track, and with it Phoenix pull out all the stops. Skirting along The Jam song of similar title, it boasts a chirpy Oriental-tinged opening riff and choral bridge, and Mars is not only on top form, but also clearer with his subject matter than ever, addressing the effects of fame on the band. The line “headline from this day on” comes off almost tongue in cheek.
But with all the noise blasting at you, the charm is lost somewhere after the midpoint, and while the second side of the album isn’t bad, it’s notably less catchy and interesting. Compared to previous outings or just the previous tracks on Bankrupt!, “Chloroform,” “Don’t” and “Drakkar Noir” exist as perfectly amicable Phoenix tracks done in flashy-big-sound-style but as nothing more. Each have one or two individual instrumental touches (the search light synths on “Chloroform,” the chest pounding drum machines on “Don’t” which strangely recall Brad Fiedel’s metallic main theme from Terminator II), but they don’t last much longer than when you’re actually listening. Once “Bourgeois” fades into view things pick up again, but despite it running to nearly five minutes, it feels like a flash in the pan, like the moment’s gone just after it arrived–a similar fate given to perky and boisterous final track “Oblique City.”
Still, there’s plenty in the first half worth visiting, and once you’re hooked in by “Entertainment” it’s easy to want to stick with Bankrupt! for the entirety of its forty-minute playtime. With its heavy and spiralling chorus, “The Real Thing” offers greatly enjoyable dynamic moment while the title track moves from keyboard noodling to awesomely devouring and carnivorous synths over seven minutes, coming to a calming climax during one of the album rare gentle moments. Inevitably Wolfgang will be called upon as a direct comparison (it bears a striking resemblance on the surface), and for the most part the aforementioned synth-driven sound should separate it, but there are moments that do seem to directly echo it. “Bankrupt” is this album’s “Love Like A Sunset,” consisting mainly of wandering instrumental sections that come together, but the guitar chug at the end of the first part of “Bankrupt” could easily be taken and put into its predecessor. “Fences” also has a mirror here in the form of “Trying To Be Cool” with its fluttering melodies and slower tempo (and where Mars sounds oddly like Kevin Barnes at times) while, as already mentioned, the opening and closing tracks are impressionable, big numbers that either seek to drown you with music if not reel you in.
It’s easy to dwell on those comparisons, but it’s not fair to. Phoenix have tried plenty of styles over their five-album career, but it’s never felt like they made dramatic shifts. Instead they sound like they’ve grown into their music, and it has the ability to feel natural to them. Bankrupt! suffers because it feels a little detached at times, like you can’t really tell where the band are in the big picture. That’s why “Entertainment” stands out so much: you can hear the drums, guitar and keys working together. Heck, you can even hear the keys being pressed when the main riff is being played. It’s the sound of a band working in unison. Upon its release I played it for a brother of mine, expecting him to be excited. His interest was there, but I can tell he suddenly longed for Wolfgang. Some things you just never get sick of, but Bankrupt! just feels a little too sickly at times.