It only took a decade, but Phoenix finally became an overnight success. After building half a reputation for satisfyingly cerebral, if self-conscious, pop they were known as much for being French as anything else, then out of nowhere came 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The Versailles band’s first three albums did enough to catch the eye but nothing to suggest they would be capable of anything as glorious. Unlike on their early work, they tailored an album that didn’t have an inch of sag. Less direct tracks such as ‘Fences’ and the sprawling ‘Love Like A Sunset’ weren’t overshadowed but complemented by radio-friendly singles ‘1901’ and ‘Lisztomania’.
After such a slow process of honing their strengths, it was unnerving to hear frontman Thomas Mars promise that the follow-up Bankrupt! would be more experimental and worse still, ‘psychadelic’. A clear warning sign that Phoenix might struggle to hold up the weight of following up Wolfgang… and its Grammy award. Instead, lead single and album opener ‘Entertainment’ bursts out of the traps to set the pace for another lap around the track their outing claimed victory on, almost tripping over itself with its punching rhythm, spiky keys and huge melody all clamouring for the front. ‘The Real Thing’ and ‘SOS In Bel Air’ keep the momentum, both familiar but filled out with flourish and flare. Any pangs for something new are more than satisfied early on as Bankrupt! takes apart and rebuilds their past with a fervour that adds an energy to Phoenix’s sound showing an assured progression worth more than any experimentation.
Structurally Bankrupt! unashamedly retraces Wolfgang… with the album’s nine four-minute bursts of pop being broken up by a longer centerpiece track. In place of the weighty ‘Love Like A Sunset’ here we have the title track, a meandering indulgence that interrupts instead of offering an interlude. Luckily the seven minutes are so out of step with the rest of Bankrupt! that it doesn’t take any gloss off the album’s overall charm. Far from being unsure of themselves, Phoenix are even comfortable enough to flaunt what got them here. ‘Chloroform’ shifts through the indie R&B gears with an ease that shows a mastering of their earlier work, while ‘Trying To Be Cool’ is a straight summer anthem complete with festival-ready handclaps.
If the band are so desperate for Bankrupt! to serve as an experiment, the only proof that should be drawn from it is that when the result is this good it’s more than enough to stick with what you know.