Monday, 4 March 2013

Phoenix - Bankrupt!


We're going all experimental; this is something fans will either love or hate, but we think it's the best thing we've ever made. Why is it that whenever a band declare their next album is more 'experimental' than their last, or (for better or worse) their entire past discography, you automatically run your perceived line of thinking down an avenue of negative connotations and pessimistic what-if's? If past history has taught us anything, diverging from the norm and creating something no one would have suspected, hasn't all been doom and gloom. And even if the experimental tag remains, like IDM or Trip-Hop or Indie, as one of those iffy forms of categorizing a given composition, it still gives a lingering sense that...maybe, just maybe...it might open more doors than it necessarily slams, in our collective faces, shut. So to see the experimental tag coined to Phoenix's first album in four years, is not only a shock to the system, it's an interesting shock at that. Rippling out with heightened intrigue and interest, I'm enticed by what the French four-some deem 'experimental' in their own artistry context. I must admit however (and with prioritized importance), I would have loved to have seen this album leak closer to its April 22nd release date. But  then again, that's like saying you'd prefer to win the lottery a lot closer to your monthly payday. Either way, Bankrupt! is out in some manner of audibility (it's still great as a "preview"...right?), so what is it we are greeted by in this, Phoenix's newest and freshest outburst of ambitious pop rock?

Well, as you'll have seen in my track review, Entertainment begins proceedings in the same manner Lisztomania did with Wolfgang... in that it carries the same expected high-octane no-mess/no-fuss joy that Phoenix are known for. However, as the experimental hints alluded to in press releases, this track certainly does give us indication Phoenix's interest no longer lay reliant on simple happy-go-lucky layered pop rock. It's been less than a month since the track dropped and I still cannot get enough of the band's dizzying height of layered instrumentation. Whether it's the crazed high-pitch key chimes, the thunderous ground-up guitar riffs, the slap-handed drum descents...and this is only in the track's in-between-verses builds. Thomas Mars gracious flutter of lyrics and emotion - 'Entertainment/Show them what you do with me!' - leads us on through the track's considerate essence of plucked guitars and steady drum rhythms, and though the song itself addresses a very dynamic clash of momentum, there's little lost to suggest this is anything but worthy of an album opener.

So what about the rest? Well, stepping firmly into uncharted territory, follower The Real Thing alludes to the band's willingness to play and toy around with their sound, the track beginning in the same vain with a slightly off-tune aged distortion of instruments, the main component of the track is once more Phoenix's comforted complexion of deep drumbeats and Mars' wandering, longing, emphatic offering of lyrics. The music meanwhile is indeed more synthetic and suggestively a lot less summery and warm than what fans have come to expect from the four-piece. But even when the glossy frosting of synthesizers and keyboards reach their peak, the band still manage to bring the familiarity of fuzzy guitars and hefty percussion back to the forefront. And all the while, Mars maintains his sense of belonging and synergy with both music and his listener base - 'Tell me that's what you wanted/Follow, follow me' - even if it is slightly more foreign with what the band have used in the past. But for anybody worried that Phoenix's fondness for electrically-charged music is about to overtake their excessive love for good-old guitar and drum sounds, fear not.

SOS In Bel Air could perhaps be the song to answer/shut people up (sorry did I just tell people to shut up, I didn't mean that...really) over such concerns. The track is immediate in its charmful and brisk upbeat wave of guitar tone and hammering percussion. But the synthesizers, both the pop-esque off-shoots and the warmer lacing alike, gives Mars' vocals - and Phoenix's new aesthetics too - a sense of playful, jolly reason to them. 'You can't cross the line/But you can't stop trying' Mars reiterates as if he's answering both his doubtful listeners and questioning critics alike - adding a more clear-cut form of lyricism without it coming across as strictly direct and over-defensive. And all the while, his band-mates happily meet his objective ruling by adding to the intensity of the drum work and the gorgeous texture of the partially-crystallized, partially-liquid stride of synthesizers. Trying To Be Cool could be Phoenix's own personal answer/response/fondness for their fellow countrymen and their established House sound. Drums are more repetitive and looped, but they don't exactly come off negatively in that regard. Guitar tones and synthesizer hooks too allude to the electronic sub-genre's fidelity for groove and rhythm. The track itself is perhaps one of Phoenix's most disco-friendly offerings on the album, and while there's not as much outward-bound energy on this song, there's as much a fond unveiling in how bold and confident the sounds are; be it the driven guitars, the plucked keyboard notes or synths that swirl and orbit around what remaining rock-tinted components are found.

So what would a Phoenix record be without its middle-section six-minute-plus build-up, eh? The title track can definitely be filed under that check-list part. But given this is made to be the band's experimental album, it gives me more a reason to suggest this is going to - as what Love Like A Sunset showed - differ greatly from the previous album's offering. What Bankrupt does instead then, is take the essence of electronic music - beginning with a fairly low-key beat - and rather than building it from the ground-up, decides to let it run alongside what is a jam of mellowed progressive guitar strings, billowing synth notes and something best described perhaps as a paperclip-in-a-glass-jar concoction of backdrop sounds. And for the opening third, the sounds are modestly low-key, but still fairly promising. What's not to be expected, and thus fairly obtrusive, is how the track suddenly submerges itself in a rowdy, lead of distorted synth hooks that begin graveled in texture but soon turn into a pristine ice-white sailing of lighter, brighter slightly-ambient veiled layers. And soon, Mars reintroduces himself into the mix, acoustics making a somberly welcome return, as the altitude of synthesizers continue leading the track on a pleasant ascension up against Mars' journeyed mellow offering of vocals. By the end, while pleasant in its swatch of sounds and textures, by comparison, it unfortunately doesn't hold the same merited extremity and tension past long-running compositions did so well at achieving.

Perhaps then this is where we see the inevitable cracks and chinks in Phoenix's armor begin to surface. More apparent, is that Drakkar Noir comes off like a mirror reflection of the track that preceded the self-titled offering. There's still an uncanny referencing of French electronic music in the band's use of rhythm and looping synth hooks. But while I wouldn't necessarily dismiss this entirely as a knock-off or a copy of what we've already experienced, there's a hint - and perhaps slight hesitance in being able to enjoy it - that this track doesn't hold as much individuality and means of development as the previous tracks hold. Fortunately, Chloroform fades out of the preceding track's squeaky-clean end synth with a track that comes off fairly more withdrawn and, more evident, aware of its own insecure identity and independence. Synths are a lot more muddy and less (dare I say it) worked-on and finalized. But in this case, because of the track's fairly stripped-back approach, the dirtied ambiguity of the electronics play neatly into the song's overall feeling of uncertainty. The more you encounter Mars' slightly shaky utterance of 'My love is...' and how it repeats throughout without finishing its own statement, the more you get a sense of how honest and humane this track actually is. Even when the synths return to that familiar glossy overcoat - ending the song on a familarly upbeat suggestiveness - Mars himself doesn't exactly come across convincingly that he's, perhaps, found what he's been looking for.

It's that solitary narrative and story-telling factor to Phoenix's sound here that gives the music's overly-electronic fascination more credit than perhaps what I would have given it. And while the album doesn't exactly reach the same self-reflecting heights, the music does continue on in the same emotively fulfilling light as before. Bourgeois, without question, is the track that aims to please as much as it aims to tug on its listener's mode of putting one's self at the heart of the music. Even as the track begins increasing the intensity of the track's looping synths and vaguely-hidden guitars - drums kicking into gear as the sounds reach their climatic projection - the band still find a way to pull it all back and replace it with a familiar contrasting flicker of Mars' venturous vocals and accompanying guitar strums. But Mars sounds a lot more admitting as if finally uncovering something; a truth, a state of fact or reality, and it's his perhaps realized-part-defeated tone of voice that gives the music a slight melancholic vibe, 'We'll never talk it out this time/You'll learn from all of us', even if he's suggesting a sense of understanding and lack of objection to it. But the most compelling aspect to take from this shift in sound, is that both Mars and the rest of the band demonstrate more a mature and realist outlook on that which surrounds them. There's less of this previous care-free happy-go-lucky mannerism; everything feels a lot more reactive. And while I wouldn't go as far as to say it's nihilistic, its context does give a lingering hint of honesty in regards to what one can do to tackle such problems or obstructions. Or rather, what can't be done.

Admittedly, I've always been a fan of how Phoenix could take such simple, formulaic constructions of pop rock instrumentation and give it a meaningful height of energy in both its execution and Mars' accompanying vocals. But one of the things I've longed - and increasingly hoped to see - is the French four-piece showing more a sense of vulnerability and understanding, somewhere somehow, in that their optimism will eventually wear thin or hit a road-block. I guess that's why Bankrupt! is so left-field of anything they've done in the past, and though many will highlight the band's synthpop lenience, the other more revealing part of this album, is its open admittance of such vulnerability, as much as there is that recognizable fascination with something both borrowed, and new. Phoenix, because of this, are able to work around both these conflicting states of mind. Much like their music that's able, so fruitfully, to flicker from one position to another without as much as a conservative hesitance, this ten-track synergy of synths and instrumentation; of joy and dismay, is as much a cause for celebration as mush as it is revealing an ambition to hit the nerves of both its creators and its fans alike. Bankrupt! while is admittedly a starting point for said new sounds, it's still one of those albums that shows experimentation isn't all about the sounds it encompasses. It's about the emotions that hide underneath; waiting to be both discovered and experienced. And if you're willing to dig deep enough to find them - thus looking upon the music's more-personal themes for what they really are - you're only going to engage with it in as much the same amount Mars and co. have put into graciously, and so genuinely, crafted it in.
~Jordan

8.5