The tough thing about peaking is that what comes next will be a sideways move at best. Phoenix’s 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, still sounds fresh and incredible, the perfect melding of indie rock with arid French pop. (That album title is still pretty unforgiveable, but the songs—phenomenal.) Wolfgang set the bar awfully high, with three massive singles (“1901,” “Lisztomania,” and “Lasso”) alongside several more that could’ve been. It was a virtually impossible act to follow, and, to the band’s credit, Bankrupt! takes a slight turn instead of trying to replicate the sound of its success.
Unfortunately, that turn isn’t sharp enough. Album-opener “Entertainment” is the only song that really comes close to the joyous heights of Wolfgang, and it would’ve fit right in on that record. But for a good chunk of Bankrupt! Phoenix eschews catchiness in favor of slightly thicker atmosphere: “The Real Thing” and “Trying To Be Cool” are midtempo sliders with only medium-sized hooks, more concerned with layers of sound than memorable songs. Perhaps that’s what the band meant when it claimed that this record would be more experimental, but rather than brave new sounds, it feels like a purposeful denial of the things the group is best at. Why handicap yourself if it doesn’t bring out real strengths elsewhere?
Which isn’t to say Bankrupt! is bad—if it had followed 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That, it would’ve scanned as just a slight step down. “S.O.S. In Bel Air” is ingratiating and catchy (“You can’t cross the line, but you can’t stop trying,” it insists), and “Oblique City” tries to close the record on a peppy note. Still, it’s probably safe to assume that most people will come to Bankrupt! with great expectations based on the album that brought Phoenix massive acclaim. Those hoping the band would make an album just half as good should be fully satisfied.