Phantogram’s Three arrives at a time where emotional transparency and authenticity in pop music is at an all time high. Every artist is trying to expose more of themselves, whether that’s in the guise of vulnerability, sexuality, heartbreak or insights into personal beliefs.
Their music is a window to their soul, so to speak, alas most pop artists merely use this transparency and authenticity as a gimmick, a marketing tool if you will. When something sells well, every label, every manager who act like vultures, even the artists themselves, flock to the fresh meat to feast, in the music industry’s case, make a tower of money and sit on a throne of uncharted success.
While this trend has been under the limelight within the last couple of years, Phantogram have been working the pop game for a while, but under a more trip-hop, less-mainstream friendly vibe. With Three, Phantogram take aim at the mainstream with big choruses and enough radio-friendliness to slowly seep into the minds of the masses. While the duo are changing, they’re maintaining their personality and grit to make it their own.
Three is gritty pop music that’s influenced by the seedy, desperate moments of life. It’s pop music with both bark and bite, the music is dense, volatile and filthy. From sprawling hyper-aggressive synths to crunchy, harsh guitar work, Three is sonically diverse and concise. The duo’s music is built on smooth, eerie verses which lead toward large-scale, anthemic choruses with enough emotion and power to gut punch listen after listen.
A prime example of this, and quite possibly the best song on the album is “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore“. It’s the darkest pop anthem of the year so far, at least in the mainstream spotlight. Its verses are uncompromising and confrontational, propelled by swirling guitars and choppy electronics. The chorus itself is a mastery of both vocal talent and songwriting, it’s an unsettling yet deeply gratifying experience.
The album as a whole incorporates elements of its ferocious lead single, it isn’t a formulaic journey. Each song has its own depressive, gloom coated vibe and on occasions it can seem forced rather than genuine. However, more often than not Phantogram pull off the moody, troubled aesthetic that the new wave of pop is selling to the masses.
Before the dark tidal wave, pop was about love, sex and heartbreak. It was veiled, and dressed up in sugar built on unstoppable hooks and bombastic choruses. Pop music of old dripped with a pzazz unheard of. Yet the era of bubblegum pop, while still prominent has stepped aside for a more real, relatable experience. The surge of personal instability and vices, along with promiscuous behaviour is thrown to the masses like a lion feed.
Three capitalizes on this, unleashing personal demons in abundance. Whether it’s genuine or not is another question entirely, however, they weave their issues into the music with finesse and it seeps throughout their sound. It isn’t just the lyricism, it spreads to the virulent, chaotic musical backdrops, from shotgunned bass kicks or floor-shaking synthesisers that birth enough haunting nature to last a lifetime.
Three is a claustrophobic experience because of this, and every track feels self-contained in this universe of darkness. “Run Run Blood” features clever lyrics and a killer chorus and although it’s wild, it’s caged up within the angst, causing the song to rattle and rumble a little bit more.
On the other hand, “Barking Dog” features all the key ingredients but its harmless musical demeanour both undermines the track while giving it an oddly refreshing spin. The juxtaposition between the expressive, over-the-top lyricism splattered on descending violins and strings is a strange choice, especially when considering the vocals. The stripped back instrumental shows both the strengths and flaws of Josh, one half of the ‘gram.
His voice isn’t a strong as his counterpart and its rawness hinders the song greatly. He displays some vocal prowess at the end of the track along with some effects that add extra melodrama and punch. It also acts as a segue into easing his vocals into the later half of the album, as he isn’t featured on the songs prior.
“Barking Dog” is by far and away the weakest song on the album, it’d be far better if Josh’s vocals were replaced, or the instrumental wasn’t so raw, because the rawness reveals glaring weaknesses, ultimately harming the track’s staying power and strength. Out of the ten songs that Phantogram offer, at least eight of them are well-written, consistent pop tunes with enough flavour to carry the emotional weight alongside the juggernaut instrumentation.
Three’s musical journey flies by and that’s a good thing, it never feels like it lasts too long or that it’s too quick, it’s well-paced and the album flows nicely. It possesses enough character to seem original or should I say, not too heavily influenced by their peers.
Even the token ballad, “Destroyer” has the right approach for a heavy hearted song. It’s everything a ballad should be, heartfelt and meaningful, accompanied by beautiful, expressive vocals that capture the beating heart of the song itself. Its placing in the track list doesn’t feel jarring nor forced, it fits perfectly as the final calm before the storm, the last mellow period before the buzzing, abrasive closer “Calling All“.
All in all, Three is a tour de force of the human psyche, delivered by two musicians who share their darkest moments and sincerest feelings in a chaotic, flashy fashion. Phantogram are the wounded animal that walks in circles, refusing to die, they’re the animal that recovers but always remembers the harshest fight, the coldest winter. When it faces the world, it sees it in a whole new light, as does Phantogram.
Three is their transformation after the struggle, after the plight, spewed forth from the suffering of what it’s like to be two human beings painted as indie-darlings, now an attemptive pop-duo. Through this change, Phantogram have had to navigate the cruel world, and it shows.
Three is an album that’s worth the time and it deserves the attention of old and new fans alike, it brings Phantogram full-circle, leading them to a place where their dark world is an oyster bearing treasures untold. Out now on Republic Records, purchase Phantogram’s Three on iTunes here.
Words by Jake Gould