Phantogram have always existed in the shadows, lurking just off the dancefloor and hiding from the neon glow of the bar lights. Three sees the band’s previously murky trip-hop attempting to make its way into the seething throng of frugging, bugged-eyed revellers and throw a few shapes. This is, thanks to the addition of some fine collaborators (Ricky Reed being just one example), Phantogram’s poppiest album to date.
Despite this move towards a more mainstream sheen, Three struggles to move entirely out of the darkness; it is the sound of an existential meltdown mid-way through I Will Survive, the transformation of The Hustle to The Hassle. Take a look at the cover, and there’s giant fire destroying waste and memories adorning it. For all the smart sampling and bass wobble, there’s an emotional depth to these songs that Phantogram haven’t tried to conceal. The result is an album that makes you want to dance and cry at the same time. It’s an uneasy combination, but more often than not, it does work.
Whilst Phantogram’s music has always had a touch of the come-down aesthetic to it, it is entirely understandable that sadness and anger permeates Threef. Sarah Barthel’s sister passed away in January, and the sense of loss felt by Barthel and her bandmate Josh Carter has clearly made its way into their music. It’s not entirely surprising to find that the first track on the album is entitled Funeral Pyre, and Barthel hangs over its sinister bass lines like a spectral being crooning from the heavens. It’s a chilly and almost soft focus introduction to the album, but things are quickly snapped back into focus with gospel hints of Same Old Blues. Barthel is in her element here, singing solo lines with plenty of sass whilst also managing to inject a feeling of frailty and innocence for the bridges where she’s relating her terrifying recurring dreams.
Things really take off when Phantogram get to You Don’t Get Me High Anymore, an absolutely storming mash-up of drug fuelled paranoia, regret and thunderous Club breaks. There’s a warning about the addictive nature of awesome drugs and shitty personal relationships, but nobody’s really listening as the bass cuts in and Barthel sinks her vocal hook in deep. You’re Mine pulls a similar trick, and concentrates on Barthel’s vocal which positively crackles as she belts out lines about possessiveness in a relationship reaching critical mass.
Cruel World’s loping-gospel-meets-John-Lennon’s-Imagine lacks impact in the wake of You Don’t Get Me High, but Barthel is on good form here, and its skeletal construction makes the Dear John content of the lyrics seem particularly emotionless. It’s possible that Phantogram might have invented gothpel with Cruel World.
The twitching strings and depiction of mental distress that is Barking Dog is a fine depiction of regret and trauma, but somehow manages to miss the target by not expanding on its central ideas far enough. Similarly sparse and emotionally raw is Answer, a piano ballad that, if you didn’t know better, could easily have been penned by Prince. Plaintive and damaged it’s perhaps the moment where the emotion within the band couldn’t be contained any more. As the song builds, it opens out, becoming louder and angrier, but it’s the earlier moments that really hit home. Sometimes, the term “less is more” really does apply. Destroyer could have done with heeding those words, as it veers from low key emotional outpourings towards some kind of transcendental explosion. There’s no questioning Barthel’s performance, it just feels like a slightly clumsy attempt to replicate the dynamics of Katy Perry’s Fireworks.
If there’s a problem with Three, it’s that it lacks focus. It seems confused about quite what to do with all the emotions that populate its songs. They’re better represented in what some might consider a more traditional form (Answer), but that doesn’t mean that a bit of candid reflection isn’t welcome on the dancefloor. That said, when Phantogram get their heads down and concentrate purely on getting a sweat on (Calling All, You Don’t Get Me High Anymore) they find a groove that’s purely irresistible. Three wears its scars where they’re visible, at times this makes for an uncomfortable and uneven listen, but when it clicks, they’re unstoppable.