French rock band Phoenix cemented their place in the indie scene in 2009 with the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a catchy, immediate record that is one of my favorites from that year. A skillful blend of pop, indie rock, and electronic cavorting, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix set the bar high for Bankrupt!, Phoenix’s newest album. On Bankrupt!, the band remains enamored with producing dance-ready, saccharine pop music, but pushes even further into the realms of synthesizers and moody electronic soundscapes. The result is an album that is less immediately striking than Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but has more going on underneath its shiny musical veneer. With Bankrupt! it’s almost as if Phoenix tried to pull off their best Achtung Baby impression, masking some deep questions about fame and the pursuit of coolness by releasing a slickly produced, ironically titled album. While Bankrupt! does not rise to the heights of U2’s revolutionary album or even Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it stands as a darker and perhaps more truthful entry in Phoenix’s discography, especially if you take the time to listen closely.
The flashy production and upbeat tempo of Bankrupt! would seem to undercut the darker side of the album revealed through the lyrics, but often the glamorous music serves to amplify the feelings of loneliness and emptiness expressed in many of the album’s songs. For example, the lead single, “Entertainment,” effectively shifts from emphatic drum-driven verses to airy, spaced-out choruses, and is easily one of the most entertaining songs on the album. With that in mind, the lyrics almost seem like a commentary on the song: “Entertainment, show them what you do with me…I’d rather be alone.” Directly following “Entertainment,” “The Real Thing” also serves up this type of commentary on the entertainment business and the very music populating the album. “The Real Thing” takes on a darker tone and seems to be filled with a certain sense of regret: “Almost the real thing, how could I have missed that one?” The pervasive synths that fill the sonic background highlight the artificiality of the song’s construction, a marked difference from the band’s work on an album like It’s Never Been Like That. Whether this lyric refers to past work or a past relationship, it is clear that lead singer Thomas Mars is looking for authenticity and sincerity, and perhaps not finding it in the midst of all the fame.
Along with fame comes stature and reputation, and elsewhere on Bankrupt!, Mars seems preoccupied with not losing this new reputation, even as he is aware of the façade that must be created to appear cool. One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Trying to Be Cool,” tackles this issue head on with a seductive bass line and a smooth vocal delivery from Mars. The chorus sparkles, even as Mars admits, “I’m just trying to be cool, it’s all because of you.” The need to be cool is deeply ingrained in our minds, and listening to Phoenix may even make one “cool,” so it’s interesting to hear the band repeating the same sentiment. Similarly, “Bourgeois” finds itself contemplating proper etiquette and manners when faced with upper class society: “You lost your mind on a cruise ship, bartending crucial lies. We’re destined, wise and we socialize.” A slower tune, “Bourgeois” takes a while to warm up, beginning with an extended instrumental intro and subdued verses before transitioning into a slighter more energetic chorus where Mars both criticizes and sympathizes with the upper class: “Bourgeois, why would you care for more? They give you almost everything, you believed almost anything.” There is a weariness to Mars’s vocals in this chorus, as if keeping up with the elite has taken its toll.
While Phoenix’s new found fame may prove to be exhausting for the band, the music on Bankrupt! remains intriguing and catchy, although with a darker feel. The lyrics on Bankrupt! point to a deeper struggle that we all face at times: loneliness and insecurity, no matter what our station in life. Naming an album filled with electronic and synthetic flourishes Bankrupt! was a bold move on the band’s part, yet they have managed to deliver an album that is not devoid of substance, but rather takes a hard look at the life promised by fame and still finds it lacking. As Mars asks on the album’s exuberant closer, “Oblique City”: “Am I gonna do this alone?” Bankrupt! never answers that question, leaving it for the listener to consider. On a record as oblique and ironic as this one, it is only fitting that “Oblique City” encourages us to search for a moment of clarity in our answer to that question.