When Sofia Coppola wed Thomas Mars, lead singer of indie-pop heroes Phoenix, it seemed very much an indie moment. Of course the wealthy, somewhat pretentious filmmaker obsessed with fuzzy indie rock and French New Wave would hook up with the roguishly attractive frontman of a French indie pop band currently undergoing a supernova of hipster attention. What Zooey Deschanel and Ben Gibbard were to slightly overrated indie-folk, Coppola and Mars are to cosmopolitan indie-pop—a match made in comment section heaven.
The pair also neatly sum up the problem with Phoenix’s fifth LP, Bankrupt!. While the band have always maintained a bourgeois lyrical attitude in the same way Coppola’s films have centered around wealthy female ennui, there’s always a point of diminishing returns. For Coppola, that was the unbearably boring Chateau Marmont love letter Somewhere. For Phoenix, that point is sandwiched somewhere in the affectless synth-barrage of “The Real Thing” and the title track’s bizarre space-pop experimentation. Bankrupt! marks the point where piling glamour on top of song structures reaches its breaking point for Phoenix and their songwriting bell curve takes a slight step back.
Bankrupt! makes a precious, catchy mess of what made 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Pheonix such an unlikely world-beater. Side B anthems like “Big Sun,” “Rome” and “Armistice” become fuzzy, overcooked groove numbers like “Chloroform” or “Bourgeois.” The album fits and starts trying to find its own rhythm, only to painfully end right as “Oblique City” seems to find a solution to their problem. The first single “Entertainment” is destructively catchy, sure, but for non-traditionally Phoenix reasons: instead of building massive hooks from intertwined guitar-vox-synth lines, “Entertainment” is one giant synth lead propping up a track that might otherwise be relegated to the latter half of the record. While Mars is slithering his voice over stories about romantic realities both public and private, the band is piling track on top of track in an effort to artificially induce grandiosity.
Mars harps on duplicity throughout Bankrupt! even as the band piles on harpsichord tracks while trying to recapture the Wolfgang magic. Mars’ impressionist romantic portraits were never the centerpiece of a great Phoenix song, but everything here matches the sonic sheen with an even more slight Americanization to the narrative than was found on Wolfgang. Propulsive standout “SOS in Bel Air” sets its scene squarely in the L.A. club scene, while “The Real Thing” drops repeated references to Crystal. The vapid socialite jargon suits Phoenix, but it doesn’t add any extra weight to an album that, outside of immense quantitative track heft, feels slightly featherweight on good ideas.
Bankrupt! won’t ebb Phoenix’s ever increasing indie cache, simply because “Entertainment” walks and quacks like a proverbial Phoenix all-star single duck. But calling Bankrupt! anything but, at best, a lateral move for the French poppers would be incorrect. Both Bankrupt! and 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That feel like opposite ends of a spectrum that found bliss on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Given the band’s constant sonic reinterpretation of itself, it might be folly to think that Phoenix will ever get back to what Wolfgang portended to be. Phoenix are still setting the pace for other indie-pop bands, and their complex melodies are not in short supply. But recapturing the magic of such a zeitgeist-defining release can be impossible. Just ask Sofia Coppola.
Phoenix – Bankrupt! Tracklist
- “The Real Thing”
- “SOS In Bel Air”
- “Trying to Be Cool”
- “Drakkar Noir”
- “Oblique City”