2013 Recap: Phoenix – “Bankrupt!”

Phoenix - "Bankrupt!"
Phoenix – “Bankrupt!”

To be honest, this album sort of slipped through the cracks for me. It was released in  April, which was a pretty busy time for me as I was in the middle of a term, performing a lot and generally running around teaching and taking classes full time. During those super busy times I tend to fall into the rut of listening to old favorites on repeat forever (read: of Montreal, Lightning Bolt and Titus Andronicus).

The last CD that I ever bought, ever, was Phoenix’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” the day that it came out. I remember where I bought it, at the Eaton Center in Toronto. What I’m trying to say is that there was something about the PR machine that made a huge deal out of the release of that album, or maybe it was that I was somehow more exposed to it. I’m not sure. Or maybe it was that I had been listening to “It’s Never Been Like That” since 2006, thanks to my dealer. Either way, it was exciting that a band I had to explain to people who they were was now getting other people excited too.

And the style shift that happened between “It’s Never Been Like That” and “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” was pretty noticeable. A post-production sheen was added to each of the tracks. Something about the atmosphere that was created really lent itself to drudging up feelings of 80’s nostalgia. Though similar in some ways to chillwave music like Washed Out or Neon Indian, Phoenix’s music does not look to replicate nostalgia through the use of vintage synths and “lo-fi” recording techniques (note: I’m putting that term in quotes because I actually hate the term, but it carries the connotations that I am looking for, so it serves at least a purpose here). Phoenix is somehow able to get to the core of it and producing a nostalgic sound authentically.

I know that it seems like it would be the same thing, but the difference is that the aesthetic is pure, it’s not a post-modern re-consideration, or a look back at the music and re-imagining it with updated techniques. It involves working with specific melodic material that conjures up feelings of nostalgia, rather than simply letting timbre do all of the work.

Anyway, this is all starting to sound really vague, and I apologize, the fact of the matter is that I sadly didn’t give this album the attention that it deserved when it first came out and now I feel as though I am playing a bit of catch up. What I do remember about it, from the first time that I listened was that they really like to use the pentatonic scale right out in the open. The album starts with one, and it keeps popping up in the same descending fashion in the back of other tracks like “Drakkar Noir.” But that really isn’t the important thing to remember about the album, in fact it isn’t worth really remembering at all, it’s just the thing that I think about when I think about this album.

Drakkar Noir

Phoenix is the kind of band that is capable of doing their sound incredibly well. That capability comes at a certain disadvantage though, because now they are getting dangerously close to pigeonholing themselves into creating cookie-cutter “Phoenix” tunes. Similar melodic fragments start to pop up here and there, similar syllabic constructions and accents of vocal lines start to become noticeable. They tend to relax into a midtempo, synth-pop groove and stay there for long stretches of time. The guitar has taken an increasingly more background role with the synths bearing most of the structural burden. Also, the songs “SOS IN Bel Air” and “Drakkar Noir” start off sounding remarkably similar. There are certain parts of the album that sound like the same ideas stitched together in different ways. This is all in addition to a lot of the build up in their songs seem to come from an idea that they had in “Countdown,” or “Girlfriend” back on their “Wolfgang…” album.

Though I don’t think that this is my favorite Phoenix album, it is their most solid effort to date. It doesn’t have the rhythmic drive and the raw edge of “It’s Never Been Like That,” but then again they are almost a completely different band now. Their sound has made drastic changes in the past 7 years. “Bankrupt” is even a big shift in direction from “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” but this is the sound that has really propelled them into being the headlining act that they are today. To be honest, 2000s “United” is one of the most scattered and disorganized albums I’ve heard. That one seems to be exploding in every direction in a desperate search for a sound with which the band can be comfortable. To that end it seems like “Bankrupt” signals their arrival at a sound. I can be more fond of “It’s Never Been Like That,” but in reality this most recent effort is more focused and stolid.

The Real Thing

It’s really difficult to deny that the thick, buzzing low end synth isn’t a really great addition to their sound. And the ethereal and dreamy sound that shifts them squarely into synth-pop territory casts a hazy familiarity to each of the tracks on “Bankrupt.” Hopefully the next release will take this fully formed sound and develop it, before the band starts to run out of tricks. All in all “Bankrupt” is a good album, and deserving of a spot on anyone’s year end list, but we’ll have to wait and see where their next release takes them. Hopefully some time out of the studio and off the road will allow them the opportunity to come up with some fresh ideas. It would be really exciting to hear Phoenix go off in a completely other direction following the synth-pop 1-2 punch of “Wolfgang…” and “Bankrupt.”

The band recently did a Take Away Show for La Blogothéque that finds them performing on a chartered jet. You can watch that video below.