When Phoenix were announced as headliners of Coachella and Primavera it hit home just how big they had become. It seemed to have sneaked up on us. Maybe it shouldn’t have. After all, ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ was a juggernaut of an album, its tracks overpowering indie discos throughout the land. Yet the idea of them as headliners seemed like a big leap.
It made us think that this news heralded the release of a colossal new album. That ‘Bankrupt!’ would be a statement of intent, catapulting them into stadiums and the front of the tabloids (I suppose being married to Sofia Coppola you already get that, but anyway). Hell, ‘Bankrupt!’’s original working title was ‘Alternative Thriller’ after the band bought the same Harrison 4032 recording console that was used to by Michael Jackson on eBay (way to dampen expectations, guys).
The first single is even called ‘Entertainment’ – a sign, if there ever was one, that the band themselves were expecting big things. And it didn’t disappoint. ‘Entertainment’ immediately sounded festival-sized, right from its opening bars which instantly bring to mind David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’. It seems to continue off where ‘Wolfgang…’ had finished - this is a jump-up-and-down of a song, as Thomas Mars sings, “Once upon a time would take too long.”
Yet in many ways ‘Bankrupt!’ ditches the pop overtones and immediacy of its predecessor for something more textured and restrained. It’s not as immediately potent as its predecessor. If ‘Wolfgang…’ was the swaggering, bon vivant Parisian then ‘Bankrupt!’ is slightly coyer and more cynical about things – and all dressed up in an 80s suit.
It makes it a record that takes a little longer to sink in. Indeed on the first few listens ‘Bankrupt!’ seems a little undercooked. There’s nothing that fires a rocket up you like ‘1901’ and it doesn’t feel quite as crisp. It’s slightly more reserved and it’s only after a few listens that it really gets under your skin.
There are still immediate stormers like ‘Don’t’, with its detuned synths and propulsive swagger. And ‘SOS in Bel Air’ also layers up the vocals to produce an indie floorfiller with its earworm of “You can’t cross the line but you can’t stop trying.”
Repeat listens reveals the charms of the more understated tracks. The slowed down R&B of ‘Chloroform’ is struttingly great. “I don’t always tell the truth,” Mars almost winks, while ‘Trying To Be Cool’ is all smooth bass, handclaps and twinkling synth.
Elsewhere it’s more about textures. The title track works in the same way that ‘Love Like A Sunset’ Parts 1 and 2 do on ‘Wolfgang…’. It’s the centre point, floating along slowly like a cloud on a dappled skyline. A panpipe sounding palette cleanser, half way through it rumbles into life and comes back to land on earth. Mars sings over a strummed guitar about the “Caledonian rich and young, everybody’s rich and dumb.”
The mid-paced funk of ‘The Real Thing’ builds the thwacks of drums to a swirling layered vocal chorus and ‘Drakkar Noir’ gets shoulders swaying and again has that ‘China Girl’ melody floating somewhere underneath the surface with lyrics about a junkie jungle.
Mars seems to be casting an eye over the scenesters and fakers around him. Indeed, the title could be seen as a reaction to the success they’ve had and Mars seems to be dealing with what you do when you get what you want (or perhaps get too much) and where you go from there. On ‘Bourgeois’ the chorus asks “why would you care for more? They give you almost everything.”
Yet on the whole ‘Bankrupt!’ is the sound of a band who sound content and comfortable in their own skin. They have talked about how homesickness was a real inspiration for the record, and recording the album back in France certainly seems to have brought harmony. Mars’ effortless croon oozes charisma and the band seems to have an innate instinct for classic pop moments.
After the immediacy of Wolfgang, ‘Bankrupt!’ can seem like a sidestep. But delve deeper and this is an album reveals itself as a gem; one which mixes their crowd-pleasing hooks with an inventive shift in their sound. See you at the front of the festivals.
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