Bankrupt!, the fifth studio release from French foursome Phoenix, follows up on the major success of 2009’s bright, irresistibly catchy Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The ten track album, which sold over one million copies, brought the quartet international fame after nine years in the business, as well as peaking at number two in the US Independent Music Chart and earning Phoenix their first Grammy. Despite the industry feats of the record, Thomas Mars, the band’s lead vocalist, promised a ‘departure from the pop sounds of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ in 2011 when he described the upcoming album as ‘experimental’. Mars, who is married to Sofia Coppola, credits the creation of Bankrupt! to the inspiration he felt whilst working on his director-wife’s 2010 indie film, Somewhere. And while Bankrupt!’s sound is in fact a shade more inspired than that of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (or even the rambling pop of 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That), the band has trouble separating completely from the signature soft rock sound that earned them their stripes.
Bankrupt! opens with its gauzy synth-based single, ‘Entertainment’, which notes an immediate departure from the tone of previous Phoenix tracks. Dreamlike and mixed with oriental influences, the song throws vocal hints of It’s Never Been Like That in with 1980s synth-pop to create a somewhat wistful sound, remembering not only the band’s own discography, but also past decades. This nostalgia trip continues throughout Bankrupt!, while it cycles through recalling The Vapors’ ‘Turning Japanese’, Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’, and nearly all of John Hughes’ flicks with its summery, mid-80s influences. With lashings of guitar punctuated by multi-layered vocals, songs like ‘Trying To Be Cool’ and ‘S.O.S. In Bel Air’ pay homage to the decade to which the album seems so dedicated – and replicates the style almost perfectly. Bankrupt! offers no fancy frills or thrills, but simply well-played, nicely executed combinations of synth, guitar, and breezy keyboard tunes.
But while the confectionary mix of Californian sunshine and French synth mark a musical change for the band, the vocal stylings of Mars remain smooth, hesitant, and soft – making Bankrupt! sound as much like a Phoenix album as any other Phoenix album. Much of the singing is reminiscent of It’s Never Been Like That, complete with Mars’ murmurs, repetition, and delicate crooning. The misdirection of the album may lie in the fact that none of its tracks emerge from the dreamy, synth-y, keyboard-lined background of Bankrupt! as a stand out single. Much of the record is underwhelming in its similarity and songs seem to run together in a hazy daydream. Musically, Phoenix have kept good on their promise of a new sound, but structurally – with its repetitively sung, pensive lyrics and soft rock singing – Bankrupt! fails, if only slightly.
Experimental indeed, but rather forgettable in its sound, Bankrupt! is worth a listen for pre-existing Phoenix fans, but maybe not for those looking to jump on the bandwagon.