Premature Evaluation: Phoenix Bankrupt!
In his beautiful eulogy for My Chemical Romance, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald made much of that band’s outsize ambition, and lamented the general dissolution of such ambition among other rock bands of recent vintage. “My Chemical Romance always aimed for the top, but the top no longer exists; all that remains is a vast, niche-y middle,” wrote Greenwald. “Rock bands don’t want to be big anymore.”
This is an argument I’ve heard pretty consistently for at least the last few years. The most prominent recent example I can remember came last January, when Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney slagged off Nickelback in Rolling Stone. (Said Carney: “Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world. So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit — therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world.”) You can probably trace it back to ’92 or so, though, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam were the biggest bands in the world, a position they vocally (ostensibly) rejected.
The Greenwald/Carney thesis — “Rock bands don’t want to be big anymore” — is an interesting one to consider, but it doesn’t stand up to careful examination. First, it ignores the fact that there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of active rock bands who’d like nothing more than to be the biggest band in the world, and who are making music which they honestly believe reflects those goals, yet who are simply — due to lack of exposure and/or “talent” — incapable of actually becoming the biggest band in the world. Second, it’s specious and selective, offering no benchmarks for success (which have to be adjusted for era anyway), and not taking into account the audience’s role in this transaction. Third, it relies on an outmoded definition of “rock,” demanding representatives of the genre fit a rigid mold set decades upon decades ago by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and U2 (all of whom, it should be noted, reflected cultural, aesthetic, and sometimes technological evolutions of their own respective eras). Fourth, it recognizes ambition only in the narrowest sense, ignoring the realities of the current marketplace and the myriad ways in which a rock band’s ambition might manifest itself today.
French quartet Phoenix may not be the biggest rock band in the world right now, but their tour calendar includes headlining appearances at Coachella and Barclays Center, indicating at least the band’s status among the biggest rock bands in the world (which I say not to contradict or diminish my pal and colleague Chris DeVille’s precisely opposite take on the matter!). I’d argue, too, that it took substantial ambition for the band to reach these lofty heights: After two wonderful albums of danceable, synthy, soul-based pop (2000’s United and ’04’s Alphabetical), neither of which charted in any country where English is the primary language, the band reinvented themselves as a rock outfit in the mold of the Strokes, and in 2006, released what was to that point their most commercially and artistically successful work, It’s Never Been Like That. (Reinventing oneself in the image of the Strokes may not seem like the height of ambition, but by way of context, it’s worth noting the Strokes’ market value in 2006: The album they released that year, First Impressions Of Earth, peaked at No. 4 in the States and No. 1 in the UK — perhaps more notably as it relates to Phoenix specifically, it spent 33 weeks on the French charts, three times longer than it lingered on any other country’s charts). It’s Never Been Like That was by no means a world-beater, but it put Phoenix on the English-speaking map in a more substantial way — garnering an 8.0 score on Pitchfork, for example, and coming in at No. 13 on that site’s list of 2006’s best albums — and the increased exposure helped lay the groundwork for Phoenix’s real breakthrough.
By nearly every account, Phoenix’s 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was their most artistically adventurous and successful: It got a grade of A from the A.V. Club, an A-minus from Entertainment Weekly, and an 8.5 from Pitchfork, who put it at No. 8 on their list of 2009’s best albums. The accolades didn’t stop there: Time Magazine had Wolfgang at No. 5 on their list of 2009’s best albums; both Rolling Stone and Spin had it at No. 3; the A.V. Club ranked it No. 1. Music critics voted it the 2nd best album of 2009 in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll. Stereogum readers voted it the 4th best album of the year in our Gummy Awards. Then, on January 31, 2010, it was awarded the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. If this was a band aiming for the “vast, niche-y middle,” they were failing upward. But that seems unlikely; both Phoenix’s art and actions suggested a band eager to grow, to gain audience, influence. For instance, after years of turning down such opportunities, Phoenix licensed numerous Wolfgang tracks to seemingly random outlets: Cadillac, McDonald’s, the HBO series Entourage, the execrable romantic comedy Valentine’s Day. When discussing such decisions with Rolling Stone in 2010, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz said the band was interested in “the poetic beauty of being part of the texture, the fabric of time.” Yes, OK, and surely the money didn’t hurt either, but perhaps more than anything, those song placements exposed Phoenix’s music to a much wider audience — an endeavor that grows increasingly difficult as listener bases are further splintered and compartmentalized. Would U2 have become the biggest band in the world without MTV? Would Zeppelin or the Stones have done so without FM radio? How does any band today find fans outside the mid-level niches in which they came up? Is it still selling out when selling records is off the table? In October 2010, Phoenix played to a sold-out Madison Square Garden. In the history of rock music, there have been few grander ambitions.
All of this leaves Phoenix at a slightly confusing crossroads as they prepare for the release of Bankrupt!, the follow-up to Wolfgang. The new album will almost surely debut in the top 5 of the Billboard 200 (Wolfgang, by comparison, peaked at No. 37), but this will come largely as result of what NPR writer Chris Molanphy calls “the AC/DC Rule,” which states: “Initial sales of an album, particularly a blockbuster, are a referendum on the public’s feelings about the act’s prior album, not the current one.” Says Molanphy, “We tend to over-reward sequels. It’s a form of group psychology, a collective overcorrection — the great mass of us saying, ‘We were slow to pick up on this last time, but we won’t make that mistake again.'” To a more overt extent, the high-profile live appearances are also a byproduct of the AC/DC Rule: Crowds clamoring to see Phoenix at Barclays or Coachella are doing so for Wolfgang — not so much for the albums that preceded Wolfgang, and not really much at all for this one, the one that follows Wolfgang.
That’s a perfectly natural, perhaps unavoidable phenomenon, and not itself a statement on the quality of Bankrupt!. However, when the connection between the new album and the last album has been completely severed and all the opinions have been vocalized, rebutted, and registered, it seems likely Bankrupt! will be popularly regarded as something of a disappointment: not an album objectively worthy of a top 5 Billboard debut; not an album whose contents, in isolation, should inspire crowds to fill arenas. After 13 years of steady, incremental growth, Bankrupt! is the first Phoenix record that will yield a lesser return than its predecessor, the first on which we’ll see the grades drop rather than rise, the first that will lose more fans than it gains.
Is that a reflection of a reduced degree of ambition on the part of the band? It just might be. Maybe after running the table with Wolfgang, Phoenix didn’t see the value in going the full Melon Collie on its follow-up. Maybe they didn’t know how to do so — even at their most anthemic (“Lisztomania,” probably), Phoenix have never created bombastic music, and maybe their approach didn’t allow for anything bigger than what they did on Wolfgang. Maybe they had to scale back. When Cole interviewed Phoenix vocalist Thomas Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai, they addressed this. Sort of.
STEREOGUM: In what ways did the runaway success of the last record influence the making of this one? Were there certain ideas or experiences that specifically informed what this record is about?
THOMAS: For some reason I think we were really drawn to themes that seemed really unusual or overlooked somehow. There was a real fascination for things that were unused or mediocre or cheap. There was this fantasy to give beauty to things that might not usually be celebrated.
That’s hardly an admission of artistic retreat, but it does suggest the band choosing to veer left instead of push the pedal to the floor. And in that regard, they’ve actually fulfilled their ambition, such as it may have been: Bankrupt! is not a weird record, but it is the weirdest Phoenix record. It’s full of sublime, gossamer music, but even its single — opening track “Entertainment” — isn’t really a single; it’s an assortment of disparate fragments of songs cropped, cut-and-pasted together, and run through an Instagram filter or two. Some of those fragments are pretty catchy (the “Turning Japanese” guitar-keys section; the vocal melody on the verse), some are dull (Mars’s falsetto on the overwrought chorus); and some are just magnificent (the towering choral bridge) but none of it really relates to the rest: The good parts would sound just as good in pretty much any other context, or in no context whatsoever.
Frankly, it’s a puzzling look for a band that does songs as well as Phoenix does them, and it’s not unique to “Entertainment.” None of Bankrupt!‘s first three tracks (all essentially very good tracks, FWIW) seems to have a center, an identity, although each has indispensable moments. Even the songs that do hang together aren’t necessarily memorable. In his excellent discussion of the album, Grantland’s Steven Hyden notes:
Phoenix has never made terribly substantive music; the sleek, smooth contours are both medium and message, enjoyable but superficial ends in themselves. Bankrupt! is the most immediate Phoenix album yet, and the least sticky.
I largely concur with all that: I’ve been listening to Bankrupt! on repeat for days, and while I love the song “Chloroform,” for instance (and I really do! It’s an excellent song!), I honestly couldn’t hum a bar for you right now. Meanwhile, I heard It’s Never Been Like That single “Long Distance Call” five days ago and have been singing it absentmindedly ever since. I disagree with one assertion made there by Hyden, though: that Bankrupt! is Phoenix’s most immediate album. I actually find it to be their most challenging work (remember, this is relative to Phoenix’s catalog, not Ornette Coleman’s). Bankrupt! could, however, be the lushest-sounding Phoenix album, the most enveloping. In fact, I might venture to say these are the sleekest, smoothest contours Phoenix has ever produced, and even when that means gliding across them like raindrops along the hood of a freshly waxed SRX cruising comfortably at 75, with no hope of hanging on to anything at all, it’s still a sweet, sweet ride.
Bankrupt! may not match Wolfgang hit for hit, but the new album doesn’t really miss, either. Admittedly, the seven minutes dedicated to its Jan Hammer-esque title track could probably have been put to better use, but as I noted in my review of the band’s secret show at Music Hall Of Williamsburg a couple weeks ago, that song produces one of the new live set’s most intense highlights, so its inclusion here is defensible. The majority of the album — including the aforementioned “Entertainment” and “Chloroform,” as well as “The Real Thing,” “SOS In Bel Air,” “Drakkar Noir,” and “Oblique City” — is made up of deliciously sweet, richly textured songs that fill the space between the headphones with an intoxicating floral pungency, but melt away as quickly as a scoop of mint chip gelato spilled on a New Orleans sidewalk. Individual highlights will vary based on the individual, I suspect, but for me, today, two numbers on Bankrupt! would make my list of Phoenix’s 10 best songs (“Trying To Be Cool” and “Bourgeois”) with a third waitlisted (“Don’t”). All three tracks are so synth-heavy that their guitars are no more than rhythm elements or frilly adornments, if they’re even audible in the mix. Bankrupt! reminds me in many ways of Phoenix’s synth-rich debut, United — the album that included “Too Young,” the band’s first “hit,” due to its prominent inclusion on the Lost In Translation soundtrack — and “Trying To Be Cool” especially feels like it would have sequenced nicely onto that album. It’s light (lite?) and luxuriant, winking ever-so-slightly at its yacht-rockism while simultaneously embracing every one of that genre’s sonic tropes. Phoenix’s gift, though, is not in being able to craft great-sounding music from those dairy-heavy ingredients, but in being able to craft emotionally resonant (if never poignant) music from sounds that are so often handled only with ironic distance.
The penultimate track (and my favorite), “Bourgeois,” will probably be Bankrupt!‘s most divisive number. It’s plainly the album’s most portentous moment, the most dramatic. The verse has the dusty, cracked textures of late-period Blur; the chorus has the synthetic grandeur of, like, I dunno, Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” or something. It’s ominous and overwhelming, and Mars’s lyrics are (not surprisingly) bizarre. As far as I can tell, at the song’s tensest, most powerful moment, he’s singing, “You bet your life on the cruise ship/ Bartending crucial lies/ We’re destined, wise, and we socialize.” It makes no sense whatsoever — written out, it looks like a word-association catalog of yuppie frivolity and angst — yet in the context of the song, it’s viscerally propulsive stuff. It reminds me a lot of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” actually, and like that song, I expect listeners will feel strongly one way or the other about “Bourgeois.”
I, for one, love it beyond measure. Still, to a lesser extent, I more or less love the whole album, despite its imperfections. It helps that I love the band — and that love is nebulous and unquantifiable, tangled up in a bunch of personal experiences. It also helps that these songs promise to age well, because 13 years in, all Phoenix’s music has aged well, not unlike the way Steely Dan’s music has aged well after four decades. Nothing about these songs relies on youthful extremes — they’re not angry or obscure or earnest; 15 years from now, they won’t seem quaint or tedious or embarrassing. I kind of alluded to this aspect of Phoenix’s appeal in our Premature Evaluation of the Strokes’ new Comedown Machine, actually. As I wrote there:
The common refrain — which I’m repeating here because it’s pretty on the money — is that Comedown Machine sounds like Phoenix. Musically, that’s a good thing: Phoenix are a fantastic band. But it raises real questions about the Strokes brand. Phoenix flaunt and at least tacitly embrace their Yacht Rock tendencies, but the Strokes have always been a “real” rock band. In truth, both are lifestyle bands more than they are representatives of any genre, but the Phoenix lifestyle doesn’t just grow old gracefully; it’s old, period.
The Strokes-Phoenix 2013 parallels are made more interesting when contrasted with their 2006 parallels. Seven years ago, Phoenix borrowed from the Strokes blueprint, and found a cultural footing they had yet to establish. In 2013, the Strokes are borrowing from the Phoenix blueprint, the long-term results of which remain to be seen. The intersecting lines between the two bands can frankly get confusing. On April 4, Grantland’s Hyden tweeted:
The new Phoenix album is a cleaned-up, more professional, better executed, and less interesting version of the new Strokes album.
In Pitchfork’s review of the Strokes record, meanwhile, Ian Cohen made an even uglier mess of that knot, writing:
[Comedown Machine has] plenty of soft-rock sheen that creates an ouroboros effect of the Strokes sounding like Phoenix when they were trying to sound like the Strokes.
Cohen was mostly dissatisfied with Comedown Machine, a point he made most directly when he wrote, in the conclusion of that review:
[I]t’s frustrating for anyone who still puts stock in the idea that the Strokes could and should be one of America’s biggest rock bands.
Perhaps, though, the Strokes agree? And perhaps that’s precisely why they sound so much like Phoenix today? Because, irrespective of whether the Strokes could or should be one of our biggest bands, in 2013, Phoenix are. Bankrupt! may not make the band any bigger, but it sinks their roots deeper. And while the top may no longer exist, Phoenix continue to fill the vast middle with wonderful sounds, to find and scale impressive new peaks.
You can stream Bankrupt! in full over at iTunes right now!