What exactly constitutes a festival “headliner” hasn’t really been an issue until recently, but no artist has ever raised more skepticism regarding their headlining slot at Coachella 2013 than Phoenix. Sure, there was a Tumblr dedicated to collecting tweets from people who were unaware of the Stone Roses’ existence, but music journalists at Stereogum, Grantland, and Billboard – not to mention the discussion it stirred up at the infamously fervent Coachella message board – seriously debated over whether or not Thomas Mars, Deck D’Arcy, Christian Mazzalia, and Laurent Brancowitz had really earned to be the Saturday night headliner at North America’s premier music festival. But April 13th arrived, and with a little help from R. Kelly, Phoenix drew one of the biggest crowds of the weekend playing a set of mostly unreleased material against Sigur Ros and New Order. If Bankrupt!, the band’s fifth full-length, accomplishes one thing, it firmly entrenches Phoenix as one of the few modern bands who are making good albums full of songs that just so happen sound good on the radio. However, despite being their first album as a legitimate commercial force, Bankrupt! is their least immediate, and most experimental LP to date.
Since the meteoric explosion of 2009’s still-fantastic Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix have been at the forefront of whatever commercial appeal indie rock has. If they’re not the first, they’re one of the earliest bands to reap the success of a well-placed commercial sync, but the success of that venture was based more on the sheer brilliance of “1901” rather than the advertiser playing the clip to a near-inescapable level of exposure. Along with Manners, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is one of indie rock’s first pseudo-blockbusters: an album with a hit single that elevates a band to SNL and Hollywood Bowl-level status, but doesn’t quite cement them as bona fide chart-toppers like the band’s Glassnote labelmates Mumford and Sons. Although well-placed commercial syncs helped more than a few bands earn their prime slots at this year’s festival, Don Draper himself couldn’t draw up a marketing plan that take could take a band from 600-capacity clubs to headlining Coachella in just under four years. But songs like “Lisztomania”, “Lasso”, and “Consolation Prizes” can, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bankrupt! is chock full of sugar rush instrumentation and sharp dynamics. However, unlike Wolfgang or 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That, Bankrupt!‘s focus is on texture over hooks, which is both the album’s greatest strength and weakness. Wolfgang had essentially perfected the sound the group had been honing up to that point. Wolfgang’s mix of a sharp, clean dual-guitar attack, blaring neon synths, and vulnerable-yet-anthemic hooks was essentially a summation of all of Phoenix’s strengths in 37 jubilant minutes, but it also painted them into a corner. To change things up, the band has traded guitars for synths as their instrument of choice (which probably won’t help any of those nagging Strokes comparisons), and, even more daringly, used them to hide the pristine hooks that buoy their best work. Even the album’s most fast-paced moments – the “Hong Kong Garden”-esque “Entertainment” and the breakneck tumble of “S.O.S. in Bel Air” – lack the urgency of their best singles, soaring choruses being traded in for slightly off-kilter rhythms and waves of synth lines. It’s certainly the work of the same band, but they’re clearly taking a different, more layered approach than the four guys who wrote “Everything is Everything”.
Perhaps a result of their time working on the score for Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, the keyboard-centric nature of these songs results in Bankrupt! containing a greater range of textures and moods than the non-stop-cathartic-explosion of Wolfgang or the bittersweet romanticism of Never Been, but at the expense of the band’s trademark hooks. Tracks like “Chloroform”, “Drakkar Noir”, and “Bourgeois” all have gorgeous, synth-chiseled atmospheres, but don’t have the band’s usual je ne sais quoi to light up the chorus. But this lack of stadium bait doesn’t necessarily make a bad record, it just makes one that is, well, not great for stadiums. Bankrupt! is Phoenix’s “headphones record”, an album that rewards more on subsequent listens rather than on the first spin. “Don’t”, a second half highlight, epitomizes this idea: the song starts with a bang and moves at a rapid place, but when the chorus hits, the band eschews a massive vocal hook in favor of a wall of synths. On the first listen, one might think that the chorus deflates; that the song never really takes off. (In Phoenix analogies, Bankrupt! is more “North” than “Napoleon Says”, more “Love Like A Sunset” than “Courtesy Laughs”.) There aren’t any vocals on “Bourgeois” until over a minute into its runtime, the Tokyo yacht rock of “Trying To Be Cool” remains at the same non-committal mid-level rhythm throughout the entire song, and “Oblique City” features a chorus that’s significantly less catchy than its verses. These are problems for Phoenix, the Coachella headliners, but great strides for Phoenix, the artists. Bankrupt!’s notably different approach to song structure and texture is a big step in a new direction for the quartet, and on that merit alone, it’s worth a listen. However, Phoenix was a singles band for the first half of their career (Seriously, the singles from the first two albums + the first half of Never Been + all of Wolfgang = one hell of a Phoenix mix), so a making a deep, multifaceted and textured album wasn’t playing to their strengths, but they desperately want it to be, and Bankrupt! is surely a strong step in that direction.
In an article discussing Arcade Fire’s headlining slot at Lollapalooza 2010, Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum referred Win Butler “one of the least likely frontmen ever“, which makes Thomas Mars – a gawky French guy who sits down onstage during the set’s instrumental moments and speaks/writes almost entirely in endearingly rough English – the absolute least likely frontman of all time. Yet, he’s crowdsurfed, called in a favor from his countrymen, incited stage rushes, and done whatever else it took to become one of indie rock’s most exciting leading men, which, as Bradford Cox could confirm, is no small feat. (Remember, this is a guy who can turn obtuse lines like “If you look like that/I swear I’m gonna love you more” and “fold it/fold it/fold it/fold it” into massive singalongs.) Mars’ improbable triumph in a live setting mirrors’ Phoenix’s unexpected rise; they always seemed like a band that desired massive success, but were never destined for it like their robotic BFFs. Although it doesn’t contain anything close to a breakout single, Bankrupt! will ultimately continue this success – they’re lined up to headline about 20 more festivals this summer, and if their recent Seattle show is any indication, it’s probably going to stay that way for a while. As courageous as it is, as the follow-up to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Bankrupt! is a disappointment. It’s no Shaking the Habitual, but it’s certainly less immediate and affecting than anything else in the band’s catalog. However, as the first album to be released by one of the first modern triple-A indie rock bands after breaking through to mainstream consciousness, it’s a bold and admirable move. Although it’s still up in the air to see how the other late 2000s indie superstars return – Anthony Gonzales is expecting the next M83 album to be “shorter, more direct, and less cinematic“, Michael Angelakos has implied that the next Passion Pit release will be “personal but warmer and about… love“, and Justin Vernon has said he’s “walking away” from Bon Iver for an indefinite period of time – Phoenix did exactly what the first truly arena-sized indie band did: fearlessly make their least accessible album to date. Although admirable, Bankrupt!‘s artier tendencies prevent it from becoming the band’s third straight classic, but it has enough energy and curiosity to make it a very solid and still fun transitional album.