Bands like Phoenix aren’t supposed to make it on Main Street USA. Globally ambitious European acts from Abba on down have usually tried to sound as Anglo-American as possible, but these Versailles-bred indie-pop guys radiate continental elegance. And yet they pulled off a stateside breakthrough with their fourth LP, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and its cunningly fun hits “Lisztomania” and “1901” – sublime songs about old-world Europe that ran the radio-play-TV-commercial-wedding-DJ loop faster than you can say “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Phoenix succeeded by balancing a love for crowd-pleasing Seventies rock and Eighties New Wave with a 21st-century sleekness and a timeless sophistication – the sound of ELO and Daft Punk having a champagne jam in the court of Louis XIV.
Like its predecessor, Bankrupt! is rich with colorful, astral-planing synths, wry guitar shimmer, pillow-pump drums and Thomas Mars’ blue-eyed vocal swoon – be it on the walking-on-sunshine thumper “Don’t” or more restrained pout soul like “Chloroform.” But fans looking for sequels to “1901” and “Lisztomania” are going to want to file their complaint with the French consulate immediately. By design, the new disc is less precisely crafted and more taken with posh, atmospheric grooves than hot power pop. The mood is more emotionally shadowy, bringing out a sense of ennui you might’ve missed while gawking at Wolfgang’s streamlined exterior.
The first single, “Entertainment,” bangs out of the box with a turning-Japanese keyboard melody and tumbling tom-tom rush. But Mars undercuts the fun by singing, “Loud volume turned to low low low,” as if shutting off his music, and perhaps the world itself. The seven-minute “Bankrupt!” is all dire, ambient drift – lunar-lounge keyboards and microhouse tinkle underpinning lyrics that seem to offer a deadpan account of a divorce: “Court in session, justice done.” Not the kind of thing you sell a car with.
Mars’ lyrics can tend toward lost-in-translation inscrutability, but there’s a clear sense of moody distress here. On “SOS in Bel Air,” which comes on like an imploding disco ball, he interrupts hitting on someone to observe, “Every piece of every costume is stolen, missing.” Elsewhere, lines like “Scandinavian leather/Drakkar Noir/Fake riches, oblivious tales” could be fragmentary, gimlet-eyed dispatches from painfully chic, luxuriantly blasé parties in L.A. or Paris.
Phoenix recall the Strokes or Duran Duran or even Sixties Stones in the way they fuse high-end style with rock & roll. Of course, their idea of rock & roll is itself quite high-end – Mars often sings like he’s searching for the sweet spot between Sweet’s “Love Is Like Oxygen,” Air’s “Sexy Boy” and the Strokes‘ “Last Nite.” But when they’re on it’s a rarifi ed thrill to rival all those bands. Against the solid-gold groove of “Trying to Be Cool,” Mars evokes “part-time holy bachelors” all hopped up on “mintjulep testosterone.” What does it mean? Who gives a frog’s leg. It perfectly describes the decadent drive that makes Phoenix’s music hum.