From Montmartre to Bel Air: A Perspective on Phoenix’s Bankrupt!
“I feel the chaos around me/ a thing I don’t try to deny”
— Phoenix, "If I Ever Feel Better"
I first heard Phoenix on the 2002 compilation My House in Montmartre, a document of the French house music movement. The song was called “If I Ever Feel Better.” The insistent vocal sample of “I can try” (it might be “I can’t try” — I'm still not 100% sure), laid over signature French house beats and a small sliver of the musical signature by remixers Buffalo Bunch, instantly caught my ear. I searched out Phoenix’s 2000 United album and sampled their singer Thomas Mars’ voice from that song — androgynous, ethereal, plaintive — for a couple of my own white label mixes in 2003. I listened to the Paris radio station Radio FG and found other artists like Geyster, Lifelike, and the pre-Gigantodome iteration of David Guetta. French house and Parisian pop became key parts of my personal soundtrack for a number of years.
I stayed with Phoenix through the spacious, restrained, downbeat 2004 album Alphabetical and 2006's It’s Never Been Like That, which ended in a flurry of uptempo, guitar-driven numbers — a sign of things to come.
When I downloaded Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix two months before its May 2009 release, I was instantly knocked out. All the musicianship and craftsmanship that was evident in the past was reinforced by a newfound sense of confidence. I started telling everyone within earshot about this stellar pop album.
The following April at Coachella, Phoenix found themselves without their full crew and production, thanks to fallout from a volcano in Iceland. And as twilight fell, they played an energetic, straight-up show. It was a triumph. Afterwards, in the artist village, my partner Micheal — an enormous music fan and way more endearing around other artists than I — noticed Thomas Mars just hanging around. He asked me if I thought it would be OK to thank him for the show. I said, “Of course, I’ll be waiting over here.” I stayed behind and watched Micheal walk up to Mars, gently reach out to touch his arm, and engage him in a quiet and touching conversation.
As anticipation for this new album began to build, I thought about the continuum — happening upon the band via a remix on a compilation, remixing snippets of Mars’ voice, remaining a fan through the decade, yet not approaching him after a show that was a clear high point in their career. From a distance, I'd watched their transitions (various co-producers and labels, building their fan base through heavier US touring). I wondered how these changes would manifest in their new work — would they stay the course, follow their muse, challenge the status quo, or some other unpredictable permutation. And now Bankrupt! has arrived with the answer.
Philippe Zdar (one half of Cassius, another artist on the aforementioned My House in Montmartre compilation) co-produced, as he did on United and 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The space between the sounds was key to previous Phoenix albums — when an event happened, you noticed it and it meant something, and that's true of great albums by everybody from the Beatles to Spoon. But on Bankrupt!, the palette of sounds is larger than normal, there’s more information packed inside the songs, and it’s tough to distinguish the difference between organic and synthetic tones. In particular, it’s hard to tell how much of an impact drummer Thomas Hedlund — an absolute dynamo in the live setting — is having on the finished work. At times, the bells, whistles, and sonic sparklers overtake the essential rhythms. I can't speculate on why the album sounds more dense than their previous work. Sometimes density is used as a way to imply greater overall size and importance, sometimes it's done to obscure the exact meaning, and sometimes one just doesn't know when to stop piling on the melodies. But it's a great album.
It starts off in a familiar enough way. Lead track “Entertainment” centers around a neo-Eastern modal pop signature and simplistic lyrics; it eventually builds to an au courant anthemic break that feels like a heavy mat at the front door — it's thick and it's coarse but it still says “welcome.” “SOS in Bel Air” employs a familiar Mars lyrical trick: repeating the key vocal line and melody across a series of chord changes — “you can’t cross the line, but you can’t stop trying.”
But then there's “Bankrupt,” a sprawling, nearly seven-minute song that starts to illuminate a recurring theme: “Caledonian, rich and young, self-entitled portrait... forever is for everyone else,” Mars sings. And in “Drakkar Noir,” over a syncopated mid-tempo flanged guitar, Mars tells of “cheap fixtures, religious tales... Scandinavian leather... fake rituals, oblivious... on a domestic airline... before you stumble.”
This is where it hit me — the references to glamorous settings, international name-dropping, fabulous circles. Was this a condemnation, a self-examination, or a series of words scrawled in haste? A scrapbook of a strange new life scribbled on napkins while flying first class? Are they feeling odd about the new success, or are they taking the piss? How does one gather such thoughts and frame them within a four-minute pop song? The band went back to Paris to write the album — a little soul-searching on familiar ground, I suppose, after the sudden success.
Fame can really change one’s work. The journey to the top is difficult but exciting — the years of honing the craft of writing and recording, the long and sometimes grueling tours, the self-promotion. And then suddenly, you're at the top, only to find yourself in unexpected surroundings, brushing up with people you never thought you’d meet. Constant adulation. Carte blanche, as it were. Celebrity gives license to act differently.
“Bourgeois” continues the line of questioning and observing in a classic pop structure, and is arguably the strongest (and most intelligible) composition on the album. The warbling signature, recalling the tail section of “Love Like a Sunset” from Wolfgang, collapses and gives way to a scene-setting verse that calls out a twentysomething. (“Darling, you’ll never know... an adolescent singing out real loud”). As the verse repeats, the double-time rhythm enters as words morph into reflection (“An adolescent calling out real loud/That’s what singers do”). The suspended bridge (“Bet your life on a cruise ship bartending crucial lies/ We’re destined, wise, and we socialize” leads to a chorus bursting with accusation (“Bourgeois/Why would you care for more/They give you almost everything”).
On the closer, “Oblique City,” Mars laments: “Am I gonna do this alone, 50,000 versus one... Come on, come out and get me.” And at the conclusion of their first-weekend set this year at Coachella, he lived out those words. He'd already been in the front row of the crowd for a song — albeit with a roadie securing him by keeping a hand firmly inside the waist of his jeans. Eventually, he took his full plunge into the sea. Wading toward the soundboard over 100 feet from the stage, tracked by only his lighted red microphone cable, he eventually scaled the scaffolding and surveyed his audience as the band vamped the sing-along break of the aptly titled “Entertainment.”
After Mars crowd-surfed and was redeposited on the stage for the final crescendo, I saw his face fill with a poignant combination of amazement, joy, and a touch of sadness — almost as if to echo the final words of the album: “Is there anything else for me?”