The majority of underwhelming endeavors in modern popular art-forms (film, music, television, etc.) stem from a mentality that seeks to give an audience what it wants. A reasonable starting point from a commercial perspective perhaps, but one that is demonstrative of an utter lack of appreciation for the power of art. As much as they may fall short by varying degrees, due to experimentation or compromising personal circumstances, truly great artists understand that their audience rarely know what will satisfy them emotionally or creatively; hence the entire reliance upon artist for this very purpose. Great artists seek to give their audience art that they need, not necessarily what they want or expect. This is as good a summation of the band Phoenix as I can muster: they are simply a group that seeks to better their audience through their music.
Of course, they just so happen to also make terrific pop songs in the process. The central hooks of songs like “Lisztomania” and “1901” endure precisely because they focus on sharp, effective melodies and evocative instrumentation. Go back and listen to those songs, though, or any other track from Phoenix’s breakout 2009 album, ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,’ and marvel at the degrees of nuance, the twists and turns the band takes the listener through. The songs are catchy enough, but you’d be hard pressed to find many other mainstream pop acts in the same mold being so adventurous with their composition, so willing to risk the good faith of their audience in the belief that listeners will come along on the ride.
The lead single from ‘Brankrupt!,’ the long awaited follow-up to ‘Wolfgang,’ further carries on this standard of Phoenix’s artistic integrity. The cry of “Entertainment” is lent every bit the same grooving enthusiasm with which singer Thomas Mars proclaimed “Folded” on “1901’s” undying hook. Where ‘Wolfgang’s’ iconic single sped along upon unmistakable, albeit conventional, guitar and synth riffs, Phoenix delve deeper into their more eclectic sensibilities with “Entertainment,” as well as the rest of ‘Bankrupt!’ on the whole. The Asian style riff is as catchy and danceable as its 80s pedigree would imply, and it’s but the first signal that Phoenix are putting their synthetic sensibilities front and center on this new record.
From the pert drum-machine kick on “The Real Thing” to “Trying to Be Cool’s” keyboard flute and harp effects, ‘Bankrupt!’ makes spectacular revelry of its synthesized elements. The band’s guitar rock roots are ever present, though here they function more as intricate rigging, deftly woven into all the floating FX to lend the music a firmness that helps the artificial elements come off as lush rather than cold. Take the largely instrumental title track, which expresses itself through fluttering keyboard progressions and sparkly synth loops. Phoenix’s physical contributions here work like a parent teaching a child to ride a bike: holding its shoulders when necessary, but willing to give it chances to go on its own. All told, “Bankrupt!” isn’t the centerpiece that its 7 minute run time would imply, but it’s a solid song and, furthermore, has the decency to be a single track, unlike ‘Wolfgang’s’ two-parted “Love Like a Sunset.”
The real center of the album is that aforementioned 80s style synth from “Entertainment.” Rather than stoop to letting such a flourish be a one off gimmick, Phoenix work the sound eloquently into all of ‘Bankrupt!’s’ tracks. It’s the meat on the bones of the rollicking “Don’t”; its the bitter-sweet romantic soul of “Bourgeois”; and its the confidence behind “Chloroform’s” cool yet spunky strut. Without that synth, tracks like “Drakkar Noir” would be infinitely less fun, and the killer final song, “Oblique City,” wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, as the E.L.O.-ish piano and harmonizing synths aren’t just the point, but the payoff for the whole album.
For many other bands, this effort at recapturing the spirit of a past musical era would truly be the kind of soulless capitalizing that I came down on earlier. In the hands of a group like Phoenix, one who know what their doing and what their doing it for, it’s a triumph of sincere pop rock savvy. It can be easy to oversell a group like this, as even the immense success they’ve earned hasn’t exactly made them household names. Still, like “1901” before it, it’s easy to imagine ‘Bankrupt!’ receiving consistent play years years down the road, where Phoenix too will likely be enduring as well.