Indie-pop duo Phantogram has come a long way since its debut album in 2009. Completely turning its original sound on its head, Phantogram’s newest release, Three, is a study in contrast. Gone are the days of floating, atmospheric rhythms and nonsensical lyrics. Three is straight to the point, in some areas brutally powerful and in others achingly soft. The jumble of chaotic emotions pushes the songs in this album to just past the right amount of disjointed. Three is either a nightmare of self-destruction or beauty in self-resurrection, you just can’t tell. But, like a car crash or a burning building, you also just can’t look away.
Three commences with two songs that accentuate the album’s overall eccentricity and dissimilarity: “Funeral Pyre” and “Same Old Blues.” In “Funeral Pyre,” lead singer Sarah Barthel is not so much singing as she is chanting a prayer; “Light in the sky / Day into night” slowly begins to dissolve into ambiguity as the song goes on until it is just Barthel pouring her entire soul into indefinite vocals. Combine this slow disassembling of sense and structure with the soft electronic background music that swells and recedes like waves threatening to swallow this funeral pyre whole and you get an opening song that is rattling and monumental. The complete disharmony of pure emotion found in “Funeral Pyre” is almost too much for the bones of this album to hold. It’s powerful and immediately commands attention, but its candidness is a little daunting. “Funeral Pyre” is a warning as much as it is an opening track: abandon all hope, ye who enter here, because Three is about to rock you to your core.
You would think Phantogram would have nothing left after the whirlwind of “Funeral Pyre,” but “Same Old Blues” is just as tumultuous in an extremely different way. While “Funeral Pyre” was more abstract and all encompassing, “Same Old Blues” is clear and structured; every note is an intentional arrow flying straight toward your chest with ruthless precision. The themes of depression and loss that were only hinted at in “Funeral Pyre” are brought to the spotlight in “Same Old Blues.” Even the title is like a slap in your face. Instead of allowing sentiments to roam free and amorphous as they did in “Funeral Pyre,” Phantogram pulls everything together in “Same Old Blues,” both by giving the song actual structure and by giving meaning to the lyrics. It’s neat disarray, with steady beats and ordered stanzas framing a vortex of passion and demolition. It’s a contrast that’s hard to swallow and even harder to ignore, but, according to Barthel, “this is nothing new / it’s just the same old blues.”
The dark, formidable imagery that “Same Old Blues” introduces is repeated throughout the rest of Three with songs such as “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” “Cruel World” and “Run Run Blood.” These songs are all very similar in the sense that they are all simply organized, with the brunt of their impact coming from the fact that they absolutely reverberate with disillusionment and despair. In “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” Barthel proclaims “walk with me to the end / stare with me into the abyss / do you ever feel like letting go?” which parallels her “and I finally learned / it’s a cruel, cruel world” declaration in “Cruel World.” The disturbing mirages that come out of “does anybody need to eat? / does anybody need to breathe? / got you blindfolded on your knees” in “Run Run Blood” speaks for itself. In these songs, Phantogram tries to take a massive influx of raw emotion and fit it into neat, little boxes. In trying to find stability in turmoil, Phantogram forces these songs and they come across as unconnected and off-putting.
In contrast, there are points in Three where Phantogram takes it to the opposite extreme with songs like “Barking Dog” and “Answer.” Whereas “Cruel World” or “Run Run Blood” give listeners too much, “Barking Dog” and “Answer” give listeners too little. While the soft, hazy rhythms and quiet vocals are more reminiscent of older Phantogram, these songs lack substance; “Barking Dog” flat lines in its repetitive obscurity, while “Answer”’s prolonged search for the answer to a question that was never posed in the first place is disheartening. The absolute disparity between these quiet songs and the ardent fervor of a song like “Same Old Blues” is too great to traverse easily and only serves to further cut up an already fragmented album.
Three is complex. It almost comes across as unfinished in the way it seems to take moments from different parts of the chaos of life, like snapshots from different parts of a hurricane, and attempts to tie them together into a cohesive whole. However, while this album is all over the place and rambling at times, there is no question in the fact that Phantogram is exploring something genuine in Three that is not apparent in their previous albums. Three tells a story of the intricacy of the human psyche, the difficulty of human emotion and a desire to splatter sensations out in the open like paint on a canvas just to find some kind of order in confusion, or beauty in madness. While Three isn’t a flawless album by any means, its sincerity, frankness and gut-wrenching veracity provides assurance that Phantogram isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.