Phoenix's somewhat stratospheric ascent, achieved comparatively late in their career with their fourth album, has been pretty well documented in the press on the run-up to that release's follow-up. Up until now each album released was met with modest expectation, leaving the band the freedom to experiment.
With album number five all that has changed. The pressure is well and truly on and, frankly, it shows. Every previous release from Phoenix has brought with it a new direction. Sophomore release Alphabetical introduced a lazy, smoky soulfulness to the band's previous sound and brought a bit more focus. Album three, It's Never Been Like That, was lean in comparison, it had a stronger focus on basic instrumentation and introduced and tendency for vocalist Thomas Mars to dress his lyrics in obfuscation that has only grown over time. The move to a big, polished, electronic sound that came with Wolfgang Amadeus Pheonix felt like a complete 180, but it also brought them to a sound both consistent, instantly recognisable and accessible.
And so it's stuck. Bankrupt! uses Wolfgang... as a template and takes things from there. There is a little more sheen, a slightly greater focus on electronics and the application of a series of Eastern flourishes, already heard in that opening refrain on lead single Entertainment, but also present in the harps of Trying To Be Cool and a repeated melodic lick on The Real Thing.
Mars' lyrics are more impenetrable than ever - a series of thoughts seemingly disassembled and reassembled at random and for some this will be off-putting, but it has long helped create the feeling of something more personal. Like letters written and hidden under the bed or thrown away it is as though Mars is looking to release something through the act of expulsion, but isn't quite ready to tell you what. The act of uttering incomprehensibly is seemingly enough.
Bankrupt! isn't just born of the pressure created by their fame though - it's about it. In fact, it's so focused on a band dealing with the fallout of success that it takes it almost to the point of parody, a meta-concept-album telling the tail of a band unable to function any more despite the medium being their continued function. That lead single and album opener Entertainment is a knowing nod - seemingly simultaneously protesting at the continued requirement to be the dancing monkey in the room and yet doing it anyway. The protest itself becoming entertainment, with Mars delivering his killer line: "I'd rather be alone..."
Mars keeps coming back to these thoughts throughout. S.O.S. In Bel Air deals with international alienation. This time Mars IS "Alone, alone, alone" but you sense it's a different sort of independence to the one he requested on Entertainment - caught out alone but in company, as opposed to out of it. Similarly Oblique City is a tale of a band stuck in an incomprehensible foreign land, the "Rosetta stone" of Coca-Cola's internationally consistent branding the only thing that seems to translate. The similarity to Lost In Translation, directed by Mars' wife Sofia Coppola is clear and obvious.
What Bankrupt! isn't though, is the tight. It isn't (quite) the record that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix or even It's Never Been Like That were. At just 41-minutes it never outstays its welcome but it doesn't feel quite like every moment is as vital as on those other albums. The extended mainly instrumental title track feels a little heavy, stuck in the middle but without achieving quite the same emotional gravity as either of those previous two album's equivalents (Love Like A Sunset and North, respectively).
Tightness or otherwise to one side though, Bankrupt! is still unlikely to disappoint. Every track has moments that sparkle and the album itself enough great tracks that I don't have the space to name them all... But Don't stands out in particular, a thrumming track with big eighties drums and plenty of distortion heavy bass that captures that disorientating sense of confused romantic misunderstanding Mars does so well. Is he singing about unrequited love, infidelity or divorce? It's impossible to tell but that only makes listening all the more compelling...