You’ve gotta feel sorry for Phoenix. Imagine, for a second, that you’re a quirky little French pop band with a handful of decently received albums and a respectable fan base. Then, a bizarre twist of fate that probably confuses you as much as anyone else: not one, but two of your songs storm across the airwaves like Napoleon across Europe, and, literally overnight, you are The It Band, the name on everyone’s lips, the tune everyone’s whistling. After the breathtaking success of “Lisztomania” and “1901,” Phoenix suddenly found themselves catapulted from playing small clubs to the massive stages of sold-out arenas – looking, all the while, absolutely befuddled, as though half convinced this was all some giant prank. There’s nothing wrong with that part of the equation, but the problem with unexpectedly becoming the biggest crossover success in recent memory is that, sooner or later, you have to follow up. And suddenly, your entire career becomes an unsympathetic pressure cooker.
Because who is that follow-up for? The recent converts, the frat boys in the back of the hall screaming, “1901! Play 1901!”? Pleasing the mainstream – especially this generation of the mainstream, forever waiting for The Next Big Hit – is something of a lost cause, because let’s be honest: unless they’ve good and truly sold their souls to the devil, Phoenix are never going to write another “Lisztomania” or “1901” again; songs like that only come along once in a career. Plenty of bands have laid golden eggs of singles and, on the strength of their later albums, have had long, fruitful careers without ever seeing the charts again. But the problem with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was that, once you got past its two brilliant opening tracks, you had an album that was nowhere near as good as most people wanted to believe it was (see also: MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular). A perfectly good pop album, don’t get me wrong, but one constantly threatened to be swallowed by the swells of hype surrounding its singles. There’s nothing wrong with “perfectly good” – except when your last album established you as everyone’s new favorite band. And then good enough is nowhere near good enough.
If all this sounds convoluted and confused, it’s because Phoenix, understandably, are too. Bankrupt! is a wobbly follow-up, one-half attempting to quietly emulate the sound of Wolfgang, one-half attempting to return to life pre-mainstream success. It’s probably no surprise that the band fares better with the latter part of the equation (and, generally, the latter half of the album). Tracks like “SOS In Bel Air” and “Don’t” glimmer with keyboard flourishes and dramatic tempo changes, while the late-night slink of “Chloroform” is possibly the album’s most satisfying track, its low, fuzzy synths providing a menacing counterpoint to Thomas Mars’ smooth vocal melody. And occasionally, the band’s attempts to mimic Wolfgang also pay off: “The Real Thing” feels like a direct cousin to “1901,” right down to its placement on the album and howling sirens on the chorus. But where “1901” was triumphant and buoyant, “The Real Thing” is stealthier and more cautious, the aforementioned sirens anxious and urgent. The ingredients may be the same, but Phoenix succeeds by inverting rather than reproducing them.
The band fares poorer the closer to Wolfgang they come. The album’s lead-off track, “Entertainment,” is giddy to the point of weariness, shiny to the point of being shrill, a desperate-sounding attempt at a hook. And then there’s the seven-minute title track, which may as well be titled, “Love Like A Sunset Parts III & IV” and which backfires so dramatically it almost derails the album. “Love Like A Sunset” was one of Wolfgang‘s best tracks because it was something different; “Bankrupt” fails because it attempts to clone that difference, right down to the letter. Placement in the middle of the album? Check. A long, mostly instrumental song made up of shorter movements? Check. Vocals coming in only at the finale? Check. But where “Love Like A Sunset” felt like it unfolded naturally, one section leading into the next, “Bankrupt” is noticeably stitched together, disjointed, even. When the vocals came in at the end of “Sunset,” it felt right – that this was where the song was supposed to end up: the next logical place for the song to go. When they come in at the end of “Bankrupt,” it feels like they’re there because that’s what happened on “Sunset” – that the band is simply going through the motions. “Sunset” was hypnotic and riveting, “Bankrupt” just drones. It’s perhaps the most extreme example on an album that generally drives on the right side of the road, but it’s proof that the band still has the potential to be damaged by its success. The best parts of Wolfgang were lightning in a bottle, and Phoenix would do well by putting it up on the mantlepiece and moving forward. “I’m just trying to be cool,” Mars sings at one point. They’d be fine if they stopped trying so hard.
Track picks: “The Real Thing,” “Chloroform,” “Don’t”