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The band’s new album, Bankrupt!, is the moment where their success is a set part of the story, where they’re forced to comment on the curiosity of their moment, even as they seek to continue it. Its first single, “Entertainment”, starts on aggressively tinny “Turning Japanese” synths. Intentionally or not, it makes me think back on that bit in Lost in Translation where their single “Too Young” is playing at a party, as the jet-lagged movie star and the ingenue dance in a weed-fogged Tokyo apartment in the blush of mutual affection. Even if the critics didn’t yet agree, Phoenix were meant to signify underground hipness in that scene, quick shorthand for possibility lurking in places you wouldn’t know to look. This new record tries to recast them as world-weary Bob Harris-es, caught up in a festival and late-night TV circuit they can barely comprehend. It’s a strange, ill-fitting sort of ennui. Daft Punk try again and again to get you out of your head. Phoenix now seem stuck in theirs.
Thomas Mars’s lyrical vagueness is one of Phoenix’s signature aspects, an internal life broadcast through a series of obscure gestures. So, a lot of the meaning is grafted on top of the music with help from biography, context. (The title’s gotta be spiritual, because it certainly isn’t financial.) It’s not so tough to make out, though. The best song, “SOS in Bel Air”, is literally a cry for help from the midst of suffocating poshness. “Oblique City” grasps for anything universal in the whirlwind, mentioning Coca-Cola and Rosetta Stone in the same breath, as if a brand name bottle was the key to cracking something incomprehensible. They could be talking about the language CDs, but the meaning wouldn’t be too different. The pervasive angst makes the record the heaviest thing they’ve done, though still not that heavy. But it does read as a traditional rock album. They finally make you feel like a spectator at an arena show, rather than a patient in a waiting room.
Taken together, you’re struck by the feeling that the end points of these French bands seem pretty familiar even if their rise was unusual. Daft Punk making a huge show of their traditional instrumentation and old studio hand camaraderie? Phoenix playing out a Behind the Music third act of music lifers getting torn up by the road? They helped shape our pop present, now all they want was the classic rock past.