Phoenix are one of the biggest bands in the world, and there’s something a little off about that. It’s not that Phoenix aren’t especially undeserving of their success; it’s just that they don’t seem like the kind of band that you’d expect to be international superstars and festival headliners. Even their contemporaries (Jack White, the Killers, Kings of Leon and other indie-to-stadium bands) had the sort of sweeping songs or the outsized egos that indicated a future in filling arenas.
Phoenix don’t have that, even if Thomas Mars’ marriage to Sofia Coppola seems like the kind of thing that the tabloids would have feasted on in the late ‘90s. Phoenix only have songs and a fully-formed sound that they’ve spent most of three albums honing to perfection. Just listen to It’s Never Been Like That or Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and one is left with the impression of a unique, arresting pop band, even if they don’t come across as brash and arrogant in interviews. On Bankrupt!, their latest album and first as legitimate pop stars, Phoenix offer more of the same, with a few tweaks and adjustments.
Phoenix’s rise to fame coincided with their decision to embrace synth-pop unabashedly as a part of their repertoire, and Bankrupt! is easily more synth-heavy than anything the band have done previously. Songs like “Trying to Be Cool” and “Drakkar Noir” ride in on sweeping synth parts that reach for the heavens. It can’t be emphasized enough just how well Phoenix pull off this sort of stuff. While bands like the Strokes (whose fingerprints are all over their semi-breakthrough It’s Never Been Like That, ironically enough) attempt synth-pop grounded in nostalgic cheese, Phoenix’s work isn’t grounded in any specific time. Any other band could have written a song like “Entertainment” and turned it into a wry homage to the corny sounds of yesteryear, but Phoenix do it straight; this is just what they sound like, regardless of temporal context. Like (arguably) all great pop music, Phoenix’s music isn’t completely tied down to a specific period in time.
That isn’t to say that Bankrupt! is all great pop music. Entertaining for sure, but it couldn’t help but be a little disappointing, especially in light of the runaway success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. While Phoenix keep doing their pleasant, jaunty thing on the album, not a whole lot of Bankrupt! sticks as much as anything on their previous albums. “Entertainment” is a great single, but it doesn’t feel as timeless as “Lisztomania” and “Long Distance Call” did on first listen. And “Entertainment” is arguably the only clear single on Bankrupt!. Elsewhere, “The Real Thing” chugs along without doing much of anything different, and “Don’t” and “Bourgeois” feel more like half-hearted songwriting experiments than real songs. Too often, Bankrupt! feels labored, especially for a band that seemed to do things so effortlessly.
Some have argued that Phoenix were in a tough situation with this album to begin with, that any follow-up to a surprise hit like Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would have inevitably disappointed. While Bankrupt! is ultimately underwhelming, it’s not nearly as disappointing as something like, say, Second Coming (or First Impressions of Earth, for that matter). There isn’t as much going on with Bankrupt! to rank it among the best albums by Phoenix, but it still works as a solid effort from a band getting used to being big. They’re just doing what they do.