“List-o-mania, my testes, see ’em grow… like-a-rhi, like-a-rhino!” These are, the internet tells me, definitely not the lyrics to Phoenix’s breakthrough hit, “Lisztomania”. I never actually thought that the Parisian indie-rockers were narrating a peppy, Kafka-esque tale about growing rhinoceros balls, mind you — but the absurdist image never failed to make me chuckle, and anyway, why futz with something that was probably way cooler in my brain? (Actual lyrics: “Think less, but see it grow; like a riot, like a riot, oh!” Still pretty cool, honestly.)
It didn’t matter that Phoenix’s Thomas Mars Jr. didn’t have the most crisp vocal delivery; the melody was catchy, and the band, bouncy, keyboard-flecked, and ratchet-tight, seemed committed to the concept of indie-rock as pop art, which meant a lot of breezy rhythms and giddy synth trills. The album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was crackling good, and if their new one, Bankrupt!, is the tiniest bit more dense, that doesn’t make it any less fun.
First single and opening track “Entertainment” is, in ways, emblematic of the album at large, although to be fair Mars doesn’t pull the trigger on that creamy falsetto anywhere else on the record. But it’s dynamic and propulsive, and when Phoenix flip the grunge-rock soft-loud dynamic on its head, pulling back the reins for a subdued, ethereal chorus, it’s pretty delightful. Elsewhere, Bankrupt! mainly traffics in groove, in feel; this is what ultimately differentiates it from Wolfgang, this allegiance to sustaining a mood, and it’s really quite delightful. “Trying To Be Cool” is Franz Ferdinand for a while, although it occasionally peels its shirt off and promenades through the discotheque; the insistent, Strokes-y “S.O.S. in Bel Air” features the album’s most insidious hooks, and they’re layered and perched delicately on one another for added effect.
In a way, Phoenix seem poised to supplant The Killers in the narrow little sub-genre both bands occupy. Phoenix may be a little more indebted to their swelling, stabbing keyboards, but both bands weld new wave flourishes onto power-pop nuggets in search of crossover earworms. The Killers may cater more to Rick Springfield fans, of course, and they don’t indulge in anything as weird as Bankrupt!‘s shape-shifting, gently psychedelic title track (it’s even weird structurally, a lengthy instrumental building up to a brief woozy ballad, all dropped smack-dab in the middle of a pop record), but the comparison seems apt enough.
And in the end, the melodies and the groove are strong with this one. “Jingle jungle, jingle junkie”, Thomas Mars Jr. sings on “Drakkar Noir”, and that makes about as much sense as sprouting rhino nads; but, as with Phoenix’s previous successes, there’s no reason to care about what it means if you’re having a good time.