For many new listeners, it appeared as if Phoenix had actually arrived with 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. An album that packed pop sensibilities with roaring singles captivated everyone from media to non-fans; it finally declared the French rock band as one of music’s true heavyweights. The actual reality was that the band had already made three terrific albums prior to the heavy blends of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and now, with Bankrupt!, the band returns with yet another thrilling winner. In an effort to remove themselves from that aforementioned album’s influence, they set out with a clear goal of further experimentation and after two years of recording the results are something not far removed from their previous releases but nonetheless, a welcoming listen.
Phoenix had aimed to switch up the pop hooks that made Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix such an addicting listen and perhaps, it was this formula that won them many fans. Sincerely, It’s Never Been Like That is probably a better album and there is nothing that truly compares to the ending beauty of “North” and “Sometimes in the Fall.” But it took these monstrous singles and more pop to hit the map and now with Bankrupt! the band attempted to distinctly separate from that past success. These ten songs don’t sound drastically dissimilar from what they’ve crafted before and it actually features another instrumental in the middle that showcases the band’s brilliant composition skills. But the certainty is that after two years of hard work, Bankrupt! is a masterful return for the band after a four year spell from that aforesaid ‘breakthrough’ – it doesn’t need to be too different to still be a victory in it of itself.
Beginning with another huge single, “Entertainment” displays the first difference from what Bankrupt! sets out to do: with a massive wall of sound of keyboards and pounding drums. The band conveys a much larger sound with an emphasis on loud releases, rather than the poppy hooks found on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. This is a key difference in that it sets the pace for the ensuing nine songs and it aids in creating what is arguably a more cohesive album. The songs on Bankrupt! all still feature scintillating synths, gorgeous melodies and soaring moments of transcendent skill but with more of a flair for the dynamic tense of music.
Seeing them at 2009’s Austin City Limits, the band drew a large crowd, albeit with their day one, midday time slot and leadman Thomas Mars commented on how ecstatic the band was to receive their largest audience to date. This was surprising because the band had already made great albums before but now, with Bankrupt! they’re poised to headline 2013’s ACL. Many of the songs feature what the band has championed as ‘fake Chinese music’ which is their playful way of injecting the songs with pentatonic tones and scales reminiscent of the orient but rather than proclaiming it to be authentic, they resign to the fact that it’s inspiration. “The Real Thing” is a menacing, overcast song that features Mars singing about his youth and looking past temptation, while the drums crash around him and the guitars and synths trade off on the melody. Later, on “Bourgeois,” the band realizes a coming of home sense in how the song singularly takes a hold of the scene and delivers some of the finest hooks on the album. Like the rest of the album, Mars’ vocals are at a premium quality and the band feeds off the chemistry delivered. Even singing “la-la-la-la,” sounds beautifully gorgeous and it’s clear the band has lost nothing in terms of ability.
The aforementioned instrumental, found at the heart of the album, is the title track that fittingly declares the band going for broke to release new tensions. Much like before, the ebb and flow follows a gentle stream at first, before the driving and pulsating keyboards and drums turn it all into a cascading waterfall. If Phoenix wanted to create something experimental and worlds apart from what they mastered before, they maybe didn’t quite accomplish it but still, they didn’t really have to. The sheer fact that they’re willing to work so hard at creating another masterpiece in their growing discography is proof enough that they are a band that demands and deserves attention. And the culminating result of Bankrupt! is enough reason to continue to fall in love with them all over again.