Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter are no strangers to grim themes that border on nihilism, their music shimmering with sleek production that plumbs dark, foreboding inner worlds. Even by the Greenwich, New York-based trip-hop duo’s standards, though, a dark cloud looms over the follow-up to their 2014 breakthrough. As they were creating Three, Barthel’s sister—who was also a close friend of Carter’s—committed suicide. The band has cited the impact of that death, along with the passing of David Bowie and Prince, as heavy influences for Three, the title of which not only denotes the order in which this album appears in their catalogue, but also points to the sudden void left by these three deaths.
Three serves as a progression for a duo that takes vivid inner turmoil and projects it outward. Their debut, Eyelid Movies, highlighted the illusory nature of human perception and the primal impulses that can make us do crazy things, described on that album through both the loneliness of isolation and imagined relief of burial. Their follow-up, Voices, expanded on these personal battles by making their manifestations more frenzied and surreal, cloaked in the metaphor of speaking in tongues or howling at the moon. On Three, there’s no more inner conflict, as the dark side has won.
On “Cruel World,” Barthel sings, “I used to see beauty in people/But now I see muscle and bones,” and she expresses little regret as she bids farewell to her “good side.” “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” employs the propulsive dream pop of Voices’s “Fall In Love” and it not only deals literally with addiction, but it also speaks to the steady desensitization that comes with experience and the pressures of artists to go bigger and flashier in an effort to continually one-up themselves.
Phantogram’s battles are no longer waged from within; instead, they sing of clashing with externalized forces. On the album highlight “Run Run Blood,” Barthel repeatedly warns that “there’s lions in here” while demanding we follow her “into a swarm of bees.” Demons are referenced on two tracks that feature Clark’s vocals; he’s more effective when trading barbs with Barthel on “You’re Mine,” and he pitches up his voice to achieve the slightest hint of a Wayne Coyne-like fragility on “Barking Dog,” even though this middling track slows the album’s momentum.
Clark’s voice simply can’t compare to the emotive impact of Barthel’s. On “Funeral Pyre,” her stratospheric vocals soar over a galvanic low end on a song that juxtaposes the simultaneously formative and annihilative nature of fire and light. It’s a fitting opener for an album that—as inspired by heartbreak as it may be—rarely strives for elegy. The exceptions to this occur late on the album: “Destroyer” finds Barthel turning more earnest and raw as, over Clark’s finger-plucked guitar, she sings, “I’m just a ghost you think you know,” before the track blows up into an electronic crescendo. And the duo’s sense of loss is directly referenced on the soul-searching “Answer,” when Clark laments, “All of my heroes are gone.”
Three represents only an incremental progression, not the seismic shift of Voices, but it demonstrates the duo’s ability to transform darkness into light, taking personal tragedy and shaping it into professional growth.