There's no question that Phoenix's new album could be the one that makes or breaks them. Surprisingly, they've dealt rather well with the pressure that's built up since the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix almost four years ago. They haven't been keeping quiet either, having started work on what would eventually become Bankrupt in April of 2011, and they're going to release a deluxe edition of the new record that features 71 bonus tracks (seriously). We'll get plenty of insight into how their fifth album could have sounded - considering they were going to call it Ludwig van Phoenix at one point, it was most likely originally going to be something of a spiritual successor to WAP. The Frenchmen have been talking about how Bankrupt! will be more experimental than its predecessor, and yes, maybe in a pop music sense, it is; but Phoenix have always been a pop band at heart, and the excellent lead single 'Entertainment' features an infectious Oriental-style synth riff and one of Phoenix's typically big-sounding choruses. Different means, same end?
Broadly speaking, yes, but the band never really set out to repeat themselves. At risk of being shouted down for using a Phoenix pun, it's never been like that; they just so happen to be writing for an international market now and have had to diversify their approach to writing pop songs. As such, quite a few of the songs on Bankrupt! take interesting twists and turns; the verse-chorus song structure appears very rarely on the album, with 'The Real Thing' and the huge-sounding 'S.O.S. in Bel Air' forsaking a Route One approach, in favour of letting the band's more progressive side come out. They really let themselves go on the title track, which is mostly instrumental and features an extended synth section, culminating in a gentle acoustic coda, in which frontman Thomas Mars's vocals take center stage for a while before the whole thing fades out. It's one of the songs on which their 'experimental but accessible' comments ring true, and they manage to push themselves in other ways as well. The segue from 'Drakkar Noir' into (possible second single) 'Chloroform' is excellent, and the latter song is a slice of mid-tempo synth-pop heaven with a fascinating twist, the key change during its bridge leading into an almost R&B-esque coda that is executed in sublime style.
Bankrupt saves its best for last, however, with a brace of pitch-perfect songs, namely 'Don't' and 'Bourgeois', which are bold and bright enough to equal the success of 'Lizstomania' and '1901' from WAP; the latter song comes equipped with an excellent keyboard hook, and is arguably Phoenix's most stadium-ready song to date. 'Oblique City' closes the album with aplomb, its thunderous chorus and generally euphoric feel summing up the mood of the album with one of Phoenix's best-ever songs. Overall, their new album is no less upbeat or addictive than their breakthrough record was - it's definitely still them, but they've settled into their new sound now. There will be some out there who believe Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was a one-off success which can never be repeated, but it took everyone by surprise to begin with, so who's to say that Bankrupt! won't do the same? It showcases an even more inventive and ambitious band, and Phoenix could well be about to establish themselves as the poster boys of forward-thinking synth-pop. More unexpected things have happened.