Four years after Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix transformed Phoenix from alt-rock also-rans to Coachella headliners, the band is confronted by the question that faces many acts following up on a break-out album: stick or twist? Do they put out Wolfgang Part 2, aimed squarely at those heaving festival crowds and risk saying nothing we haven’t heard before, or do they move into more adventurous territory, possibly alienating the fans attracted by the laser-guided pop of “1901” and “Lisztomania”?
With the release of Bankrupt!, it seems the answer is, well, neither. Without the gleaming hooks of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, yet lacking the experimental forays the band promised in interviews last year, Bankrupt! sees Phoenix finally abandoning the Strokes-influenced rock of their early efforts, turning up the keyboards, and bringing in the drum machines. It’s cool and pleasant, but easy to forget.
Which isn’t to say that this isn’t at least a gorgeous-sounding album. Opener “Entertainment” is bigger than anything else Phoenix has ever recorded: Muscular synths break against walls of multi-tracked guitar, and pounding drums lend a thrusting momentum to Thomas Mars’s arch inquiries of “Do you wanna let go?” The queasy orientalism of its “China Girl”-aping riff aside, it’s a barnstorming song, with a theatrical sense of suspense and release.
Yet that same sense of dynamism and purpose is exactly what’s lacking in even the best songs on the rest of the album. “The Real Thing” takes as its starting point the chillwave-on-steroids of Neon Indian’s “Polish Girl,” conjuring the same endless-summer vibe that infused the best of that micro-genre before adding campy Beach Boys-style backing vocals, while the brilliantly, preposterously titled “S.O.S. in Bel Air” rides a chirruping synth riff through four minutes of cheerful pop bliss. Both are enjoyable, but there’s an unappealing anodyne quality to them that seems too eager to please and achieves the opposite. The apogee of this cashmere-soft obsequiousness is “Trying to Be Cool,” which drifts in one ear, sighs pleasantly over a cloud of breezy keyboards, and then drifts out the other, leaving absolutely no trace behind.
Most bands would argue that one seven-minute semi-ambient song suite in the middle of an album is enough for one career, but Phoenix, flaunting tradition, decides to follow Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset” with this album’s title track, a similarly luxuriant slice of late-afternoon sun. While the track isn’t as effective as its predecessor, the band should be admired both for their chutzpah and the deliriously nonsensical line “Caledonian rich and young/Self-entitled portrait,” a tribute to Mars’s ability to rattle off gorgeous nonsense with a straight face. Album highlight “Chloroform,” by contrast, is heartbreaking, its lyrics brimming with sardonic disaffection. Mars delivers the line “Buckle up, we’ll chase each other/It’s not a lot, it’s just enough to matter” with such dismissive weariness that his later assertion that “I don’t always tell the truth” is unnecessary; the tired nonchalance slides off his tongue with every smooth syllable.
That lightness of touch, however, is otherwise missing from Bankrupt!. There’s no doubt that the sugary choruses and walls of synthesizers found on here will sound perfectly pleasant when blasted out across crowds of thousands in fields in California and wherever else this summer. It’s less certain, however, if people will still be listening to the album album in four years’ time.