Phoenix – Bankrupt!

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Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix might not have been my favorite album of 2009, but it was easily my most played;  “Lisztomania” and “1901” were the soundtracks to counteract the drabness of my everyday life. Bankrupt! is Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix without those two tracks. In other words, Bankrupt! is a disappointment—not that anyone really expected anything else—which hurts the band especially as it may have been their most important album. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, despite being their fourth album, was the first to find its way to mainstream success, after abandoning garage rock revival-influenced aesthetics that made derivative of the old era and taking on synth pop to make them definitive of the new era. As most sophomoric slumps go, Bankrupt! reveals the band’s limited vocabulary and is the second plot on a negative sloped line on a graph that resembles their life trajectory.

The main problem here is the band’s assumption that there’s little worth hearing in a song other than its hooks. A lot of these songs have verses that couldn’t leave a mark if they wanted to. You’re not going to hear a line like “Girlfriend, oh your girlfriend is drifting away;” or maybe you are, but the band doesn’t bother injecting any sort of memorable melody in their verses because they’ve expended them all for the song’s hook(s). Of course, vocalist Thomas Mars has such arena rock pretensions matched with a pretty voice that the hooks do stand out, especially the ones that are utterly disconnected from the rest of the song (see the standalone build-up of the hook in “S.O.S. in Bel Air” or the drums that explode underneath the hook of “Don’t”). The songs with less or worse, less-realized hooks suffer in comparison (see “The Real Thing”). And the hooks don’t mean anything anymore: I could jive with something like “Duel it!” or “Fold it!” because they didn’t mean anything anyway, but they were delivered with an underlying conviction that they did. Here, the “‘Til I die”‘s of “Drakkar Noir” feel fake, and certainly not half as interesting as the meaningless “Jingle jungle/ Jingle junkie-junkie jumble” of the same song. The way Mars sings “I will marry you on Tuesdays” on “Chloroform” is nice, probably his most melodic line on the album, but seriously what does that even mean?

Following Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s success, the band also ups the synths but in doing so, they reveal that they would never have survived as a straight-forward synth pop band. Synth lines are divided into throwaways (see “The Real Thing”’s intro) or ridiculously simplistic ones (see the one-note riff of “Bourgeois,” the regal arpeggio of “Chloroform,” or the riff that I swear came from a traditional Chinese melody of “Entertainment”), which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the band didn’t push them to the frontlines so heavily. Actually, both “Entertainment” and “Chloroform” are the album’s best cuts (unsurprisingly, both chosen as singles). I hear the bounce of “Lisztomania” ever so slightly underneath the verse of “Entertainment” before the buzz of “1901” rises up after Thomas Mars says the title’s word and the main synthline comes back in shortly after, riding drums that were made to bless large venues. “Chloroform” also recalls “1901” by dropping us in a slab of buzz in each measure, and both tracks take on “Lisztomania”’s downtempo-ed bits for added replay value.

But the band does know how to make an album work. Bankrupt!, despite going on for 40 minutes, feels like a brisk half-hour thanks to the track sequencing. The “I love, I love, I love, I notice” which demonstrates Mars’ penchant for wordplay bit of “Entertainment” gets reformatted into “My love, my love, my love, my love is” in one of “Chloroform”’s hooks, and considering Mars’ intonations, they sound practically the same. They wisely select the 7-minute “Bankrupt!” as their centerpiece in the same way that the bipartite “Love Like a Sunset” acted for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Here, it’s less impressive, there’s no segueing between the three parts of “Bankrupt!” (one part “Love Like a Sunset,” one part space opera soundtrack, one part Phoenix song) and as a result, it sounds like three half-baked ideas smashed together instead of the one cohesive prog track that it wants to be. I had described the arpeggiated intro of “Chloroform” sarcastically as “regal,” but truthfully, it works better in the context of the album after hearing “Drakkar Noir” segue into it, and closer “Bourgeois City”’s “Do I gonna do this alone” nicely nods to opener “Entertainment’”’s “I’d rather be alone.”

On a whole, Bankrupt! is entertaining. The name of the lead single and the exclamation in the title could’ve told you that. Shame it’s nothing else.

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