It’s a curious, unlikely truth: The pop-music spring of 2013 will be ruled by the French. The first major initiative arrived Monday courtesy of Versailles indie pop band Phoenix with “Bankrupt!” and will be followed May 21 when Parisian dance rock duo Daft Punk drops its highly anticipated “Random Access Memory.” What this strange turn portends -- the French aren’t exactly known for dominating western pop music -- is as open to interpretation as the lyrics on “Bankrupt!,” an album that succeeds despite its verbal elusiveness.
Catchy yet vacuous, on “Bankrupt!” the indie pop band born 16 years ago in the suburbs of Paris submits an application for the job of the world’s biggest group, give or take a Coldplay or U2.
Released four years after its breakthrough album, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” Phoenix's fifth album in 13 years is a gleaming, sparkling ode to both synth-pop and rock. At its best -- “Chloroform,” “Entertainment” and the title track -- the group offers more joyous opportunity to sing along to the grand vocal melodies of Thomas Mars. The singer has a knack for delivering runs that nestle their way into the brain’s musical crevices, while the band (bassist Deck d’Arcy, guitarists/multi-instumentalists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai) pushes its sounds in engaging and occasionally urgent new directions.
For this installment, Phoenix has further delved into digital: guitars that on earlier albums drove the band’s massive hits “1901” and “Lisztomania” are often buried in favor of synthesizers and midrange washes and rhythms -- even while Mars’ voice remains loud in the mix. The result is catchy, occasionally challenging new wave, heavy on the dance beats, big with old-school analog synthesizer tones and a plump bottom.
But though the band knows how to make awesome sounds, “Bankrupt!” is hardly groundbreaking. The album feels like a predictable progression, too logical an evolution. Like a lot of current pop-rock, the group seems to have been listening to modern R&B, and vibes along that suggestive, lingerie-strewn pathway all the way to the bed. And like a lot of blue-eyed soulsters, when they lean toward synth tunes they sound like Hall & Oates circa 1981, but with more bark and volume.
The connector is Mars’ immediately identifiable wail, one that jumps along joyfully. He's best on “Drakar Noir,” when his pleading is one of many textures; here, it complements the track by occupying a smaller footprint in the mix. The keyboards that drive “Chloroform” rattle the bones with humming clusters, delivering some of the record’s most satisfying textures.
Impressive as it can be, though, Mars’ singing is better in three- and four-minute bursts than over a consecutive hour. After a while, his vocal phrasing, sing-songy to a fault, reveals its limitations.
The same could be said of the band’s lyrics. Woe be the fan of tight, well-crafted verses and choruses or specificity of thought. Phoenix’s are often gibberish, and at their worst read like random phrases Google-translated from French to English via Esperanto and Chinese. “SOS in Bel Air” is apparently about an occurrence in tony Los Angeles, but is vaguely relayed to someone we don’t know (“… Alone, alone, alone/Crystal or bamboo?/Voyager canoe”). “Trying to Be Cool” feels like a string of multi-syllabic words connected by vacuous nothingness -- “Too much intention Presbyterian/Mint julep testosterone/Tell me that you want me.”
Admittedly, had Phoenix sung these lyrics in its native French, this non-speaker would have never been the wiser. The sheer joy with which, for example, Mars lifts off with the chorus to “The Real Thing” is undeniable: “Pour lava in the ocean/Drown into the throne that you sit on,” he sings. “Follow me! Follow me! Follow me!”
If only it were that easy.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit