Phantogram's third (and best effort) hides a lot of sadness behind that swagger, and that tension helps define their most scintillating set yet.
In 2009, Phantogram's icy, sample-based brand of modern trip-hop made its formal introduction to the world in the form of Eyelid Movies, a fascinating debut set released on celebrated indie label Barsuk Records. The album was a cult hit and warmly received, AllMusic's great Tim Sendra noting how "the amount of care the duo gives to the arrangements, the subtle and successful blending of influences, and above all, the high quality of the songs and performances, mean that the record is a success on its own terms." Golf claps abound, the world of indie electro-pop kept a-spinnin'.
Seven years later, the duo was on stage with OutKast's Big Boi on Lollapalooza performing as "Big Grams", Sarah Barthel demanding that before the set was over, she wanted to "see some goddamn titties" in the crowd. At least one fan obliged.
Oh, how the times have changed.
While Phantogram's relentless touring and constant supply of EPs certainly made sure they weren't totally forgotten, working with Big Boi for two tracks off of his still-underappreciated second solo effort Voices was much more strident and sophisticated than anything Eyelid Movies had to offer, but their Big Grams detour lead the twosome into new directions, with Carter swaggering around as some self-appointed badass beat svengali while Barthel, growing increasingly confident as a singer with each and every release, turned her persona into that of a sexy bad girl, the group's new identities a move to endear themselves to a new demographic while perhaps teasing hardcore fans as to the style their next album would take.
As it turns out, their blandly-titled new album Three arrives with scorched earth trailing behind it, lead single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" proving to be their most commercial offering yet, as towering, sinister synths a quiet Euro-disco pre-chours anchor a smashing song about ... regret, loneliness, and the dissolution of a relationship. "It used to take one / Now it takes four," Barthel croons before singing the title, and despite the group's can't-look-away musical proficiency, the reason behind the new outfits and style suddenly makes sense: Phantomgram is grounding themselves. Their lyrics have always been about hangovers and comedowns, sometimes pining for lost loves, but now that they're working with Skrillex and dressing the part, suddenly their lyrics take on new dimensions and have real, genuine gravity to them.
Not that you'd know it by listening to the music alone, mind you. Opening number "Funeral Pyre", with its slowly-dying-Nintendo-console beat, soon opens up into a fully-enmeshed guitar number, guitar feedback soon threatening to swallow the band whole, Barthel's voice practically drowned out in the mix. The sample-driven "Same Old Blues" meanwhile sparkles like Phantogram of old, featuring with a clap-along beat that could tear up the clubs and an organ-accented pre-chorus that could almost be construed as sweet were it not for Barthel talking about a recurring dream where she's stuck in a hole she can't get out of (bad dreams are a recurring motif on this album; see also the teeth-falling-out dream in "You Don't Get Me High Anymore"). "Today I lost my future to the past / I got nobody left, I'm going nowhere fast" she chrips, the song coming off like an acceptance of her own sadness, manageable because it's now just become so routine. All of this happens, of course as Carter busts open the bridge with a searing rock guitar solo, their melodic pyrotechnics distracting casual fans from the emotional bleakness contained herein.
As Three unfolds, so does its cathartic grasp of desperation: "So I'm saying my goodbyes / Goodbye to my good side," Barthel sings on "Cruel World", while Carter's star turn on "Barking Dog", a string-accented hangover lament where time seems to slow down, captures that feeling of when you're unsure of where your mind is at even as cold porcelain is pressed onto your resting face ("Head on the bathroom floor / Talking in my demon voice / Millions of years go by"). These moments are well-played and well-crafted; some may argue that this is the pair's finest effort to date, and outside of those fans who wish they never left their Barsuk-era sound, it'd be hard to refute.
Those worried about a bleak listen need worry not, as Three still manages to cover more traditional lyrical territory, like on the old-school Phanto-sounding "You're Mine" and the water-warped piano ballad "Answer" (both duets, incidentally), while the sinewy stomp of "Run Run Blood" takes a break for actual braggadocio, ultimately proving to be more comic relief than anything else given Carter's frequent references to newspapers and paperboys. Yes, there's a reason this is tucked away on the album's back half.
Closers "Calling All" and "Destroyer" fail to leave much an impression, which is understandable given the sheer amount of ground the group covered leading up here, their songwriting as confident and assured as ever. Some may pass by Three without much mention, impressed by a few takeaways but soon lumping it in with the rest of Phantogram's fascinating-but-not-iconic discography. Flaws and all, Three is where Phantogram has stepped up, projecting themselves as chart-conquering hedonistic demigods despite their lyrics conveying an absolute crippling unhappiness. This all creates a fascinating tension that helps drive Three farther than their other efforts, making Phantogram a name now associated with one of the more memorable pop documents to come out this year.
Oh, how the times have changed.