Sometimes instant success can come at a price. For a band like Phoenix, it really came out of nowhere. When it comes to making the follow-up to your career’s biggest success to date, there’s a sudden sense of judgement surrounding your every move. Everyone will be watching what you’re going to do next and judge you based solely on the one album you’re known for. While the praise could very well be rewarding, the criticism could bring you down faster than you could even remember being on top. It all comes down to the direction a band wants to take their music: do they continue doing what they’re know for, or do they change it up in hopes of not being seen as a one-trick pony?
Before I get into any specifics here, let’s look at how Phoenix, the alt-rock foursome from Versailles, France, got to where they are now. They may have flown under the radar in North America, but in France, Phoenix has been a fairly popular mainstay, having released their first three studio albums (2000’sUnited, 2004’s Alphabetical, and 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That) with a fair amount of success from sales as well as critical opinion. It wasn’t until the band released their fourth studio LP Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in 2009 that the band blew up worldwide, with a little help from their monster hit single “1901.” The album went as far as number two on the US Independent Albums chart and 38 on the Billboard 200. The album received numerous end of the year best-of accolades, with the height of their success being their Grammy win for Best Alternative Music Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards in 2010. So how does Phoenix’s post-success album turn out? The results are their fifth LP, Bankrupt!, and it has Phoenix shifting their style quite drastically, partially with positive results, but mostly lackluster.
Props go out to the few tracks on Bankrupt! that actually stand out on their own, because there aren’t too many that do. “Entertainment” is legitimately a solid first single. Its stylized as one giant Japanese, synthpop explosion, but still sticking with the typical Phoenix familiar formula, similar to a song like “Lisztomania”. The choral closer almost is too much for the song, but’s not too long or distracting, just out of place. “S.O.S. In Bel Air” is a nice poppy piece with a fun sing-along companion in the chorus. “Chloroform” is a very smooth steady slow-paced number, one of the few tracks that don’t feature completely overbearing or overpowered synth lines.
Where this album fails as a successor to Wolfgang is their dramatic shift from a straight-forward but exciting alt-rock band to a band that relies way too much on synthpop and dance vibes to move their songs along. The personality of Phoenix is more vapid than ever here on Bankrupt!, as uninteresting and filler tracks take up way too many spots on the album. No one has to picked out specifically, considering they almost all have the problem of blending together. Now, it’s not unexpected for an album to have a unifying theme that branches across all of the tracks, but on Bankrupt!, they blend so well together,too well together, they instantly all become identical. It’s a shame considering Phoenix’s instrumentation and cohesiveness as a band has never been better than right now, but it’s completely underutilized in favor of over-production and flashiness.
Many bands have had fair to underwhelming post-success albums in the past (recent examples that come to mind are Modest Mouse with We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank and MGMT with Congratulations). Now Phoenix has just had their own with Bankrupt!. Don’t be mistaken though, they’re still a solid band; this album could just be seen as them in their infancy of being a bigrock band, trying out new things, and experimenting with the new tools available to them. It’s not entirely certain whether this faux pas will burden the band in the long run, but if one thing is for sure, this is not going to be the album we remember Phoenix for.
Recommended tracks: “Entertainment,” “S.O.S. In Bel Air,” “Chloroform”
WORDS: Jared Silva is the Senior Music Editor for Fameless Magazine.