It’s not exactly a new, hot take, but these are undeniably weird times we’re living in. With the integration of social media into our lives, we are living outside of ourselves, always online and always exposed to the ups and downs of an entire world. Tragedy and ecstasy are served to us piecemeal, vignette style through our feeds and conversations. It seems to me much of pop culture now centres around positivity, vulnerability and survival in times of tumultuous mental health.
It should hardly come as a surprise then, that art pop is going through a bit of a revival. Artists like Grimes and St. Vincent, who have always been unabashedly honest and forthcoming, are serving up dark reflective content with a much-needed spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down. I’ve also noticed a subplot of solo artists such as former Crystal Castles frontwoman Alice Glass, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, overcoming their personal struggles to produce powerful stories in their songs that address some huge social issues. This genre as a whole is establishing some wonderful role models and examples of how to thrive and own one’s space in these testing times.
Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter certainly fit this bill, turning a new leaf over some serious personal tragedy to bring us a changed Phantogram with their new album Ceremony. Firstly though, a content warning: the next two paragraphs of the review discuss themes of suicide and reference lyrics about the topic. For emergency numbers and information about any mental health issues you or your loved ones may be struggling with, please visit Checkpoint. If you want to skip ahead, just go past the first YouTube embed.
In a note on the band’s socials accompanying the album’s launch, Barthel details the headspace she and the band toured their last album through. She says their previous album was meant to be catharsis for all the tragedy she was seeing in the world, but reliving it on tour every night was exhausting her and the band. The track “News Today”, on the new album, talks about this media loop of high profile suicides that felt like an endless spiral down, opening, ‘I saw you on the news today/You was alive/You was just healthy and on your way‘. The chorus refrains, ‘Tomorrow I turned on the radio/Realized I never made it to your first show‘. Even now, writing this, I’m reminded of how heavy it felt losing Mac Miller and Chester Bennington. A lot of us lost our musical heroes to suicide in the last few years, and it’s a sentiment that really hits home. This feels, though, like a range of emotions Barthel is processing and moving through, rather than wallowing in and re-enacting.
She continues in the note, disclosing losing her own sister to suicide. She explains Ceremony is born from her own struggles and journey to self-care and survival in a world that had suddenly lost so much, asking, ‘How do we pick up where we left off? How do we save ourselves form this seemingly endless cycle of love and loss?’. Death changes everything, especially in such a heartbreaking context, and I feel truly privileged that the band was able to create art from their growth and metamorphosis. Life can be a cruel experience, and it’s so wonderful that we have music like this to help us digest and comprehend it with togetherness.
Phantogram are back, and with a clarity and confidence to their sound that shows what they’ve learned from what they’ve been through. This is a decidedly dark album, but not without a message of hope and resilience. Their sonic fingerprints are unmistakable throughout the album, but it feels more like an established product now. The 38-minute play is filled with their usual catchy choruses, rhythmically creative vocals, dance-inducing beats, and experimental sampling.
This is a band that has always been an amalgam of many styles. In past albums they’ve ranged from the femme fatale, post-punk attitude of their rockier songs (think Yeah Yeah Yeahs with hip-hop drum beats), to trippy minimalism reminiscent of Portishead, such as in their hit song “When I’m Small”, to electronic pop bangers that I had on repeat month after month like “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”. I love this band so much because despite being so hard to put in a box, they have a certain quality and addictiveness to their songs that so clearly belongs to them. I think the best music has this quality to it where, it doesn’t quite all make sense on the first listen, but once you learn the ins and outs of the tracks it’s impossible to put down. And while this album doesn’t quite have the experimental breadth of their earlier outings, they’ve distilled the essence into bite-sized, easy to consume bops.
The band released the singles “Into Happiness” and “Mister Impossible” midway through last year in anticipation of the new album. Both tracks are positive about a markedly different world, whilst maintaining a weight and moodiness fitting the subject matter. On “Into Happiness”, Barthel sings, ‘Down a road I’ve left behind/Everything is clearer now/I’ve been getting better/You’d make it perfect‘. The track contrasts distorted vocals from Carter in the verses with poppy glitz in Barthel’s chorus vocals, perfectly capturing the bittersweet optimism. “Mister Impossible” opens with Bond-esque dramaticism, and it’s a simple and catchy tune set to a sweet breakbeat. The track oozes cool in a black leather jacket, devil-may-care kind of way.
Backtracking a little, the first track “Dear God” sets a disco groove to morbid lyrics, and it’s a pretty perfect way to open the album. Luring you in with an upbeat banger, the track also makes it clear you’re not going to be getting through this listen unscathed. The melancholy and bleakness might be bubble-wrapped, but it’s all bare to see.
The highlight of the album for me is “Let Me Down”. This might be my personal preference for showing the rock side of this group, but I found the ultra-distorted guitar verses set up the synth arpeggiated chorus perfectly. There’s nothing better than when a track reignites your passion for music by showing you something unique that just works so well.
The closing tracks “Glowing”, “Gaunt Kids”, and “Ceremony” are an interesting take on a spot usually reserved for quiet ballads and build-up finales. They all have this gloomy, detuned atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat without becoming unsettling. “Glowing”, imbues dreamy, minimalist pop with a certain loss of innocence in its lyricism. It reminded me of some of Miley Cyrus’ softer tracks (if you only know of her most popular music, give Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz a listen – it’s solid), in its willingness to keep things simple and emphasise vocal expression.
As the first of the album’s singles dribbled through last year, I have to admit I was a little concerned that Phantogram had dumbed down their sound for wider appeal. Looking at Ceremony as a whole though, Barthel and Carter have refined the exact elements that make their sound, and haven’t been afraid to keep things short, simple, and clear. This is a rebirth of a band that has a wide range of influences and sounds, yet the maturity they have gained over their break from writing has resulted in a purposeful and direct record. Don’t get me wrong, the creativity and variety is still here in spades, but it comes with a sense of thematic focus I haven’t always felt so strongly from them. Ceremony is a thought-provoking, musically intriguing, and stylish return to form.