In a way, the story of French alt-rock-turned-synth-pop outfit Phoenix parallels the mythical creature from where they derive their name. After a decade wallowing in the ashes of relative obscurity, the band rose from said ashes to international stardom with their fourth studio album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in 2009.
But that kind of success is a double-edged sword, because it puts the band in the position of having to produce a follow-up album that comes close to the expectations of the previous one. So after four years of riding the success of Amadeus, Phoenix has come up Bankrupt!, so to speak. But I have to say, the album far from lives up to its name; in fact, in my view, Phoenix has done the wisest thing they could have done with a follow-up recording: they ignored their previous success and just made the record that was a natural progression forward from their last one.
What do I mean by this? Bankrupt! basically serves as the natural evolutionary next step from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, rather than as a desperate attempt to match its success. In essence, this album pretty much pretends that the last album didn’t go Gold in three countries or win them a Grammy. Instead, it just plays to Amadeus’ strengths and pushes them forward. That’s not to say it doesn’t keep to formula as to what works; the danceable synth-pop and hooky melodies are pervasive throughout, for example, as evidenced in the Asian-tinged opening track “Entertainment” and the almost-too-fast dance-pop of “S.O.S. In Bel Air.” But there are also moments when Phoenix seems purposely to shun the conventions of pop, shooting more for an epic type of feel. The title track, for example, clocking in at nearly seven minutes, is about as non-radio-friendly a track as the band have ever created, playing more like a modern tone poem, utterly devoid of a hook. It’s moves like these that suggest that Phoenix is saying to their audience (in French, of course), “We are glad you like our songs, but just so you know, we are still artists.”
Bankrupt! in a sense walks a terrific balance between playing to the crowd and being true to who Phoenix have become as a band, attempting neither to placate their fans nor alienate them. Not only that, but just taking the record on its own merit, it is a great album. It’s too early to predict whether this album will match the financial success of their last, but it doesn’t really matter. This is the album Phoenix needed to make at this point in their career. Kudos to them for staying true to their own artistic value and evolution.