Sunday, December 25, 2016

Three | Phantogram

Inside the cardboard housing for Phantogram's third album, the inscription is simple: For Becky.

The two words summarize Three well. The jagged album, proudly nonconformist to smooth synthpop standards, is checkered with memories of Sarah Barthel's sister, Becky, who committed suicide during its creation. "Barking Dog," a Josh Carver-fronted track chronicling the afterthoughts of someone who has committed suicide, was already in consideration before Becky's death, but all things considered, it take new meaning here. Amid her coping, Barthel fuels her inner cynic on "Cruel World" ("I used to see beauty in people, but now I see muscle and bone") and on "Answer," she begs for just that: "Kindly be kind, wipe all the dirt from my eyes. I need an answer."

Tragedy and inspiration aside, the core of pop music – infectious hooks, heavy production – remains intact. While Three continues Phantogram's tradition of building tracks around harsh, unrelenting samples, the duo has delivered its most accessible, but darkest, album to date with some help from executive producer Ricky Reed. Spare "Barking Dog," which pools together with never-ending string samples, the samples lend themselves to supermassive choruses. Lead single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" is arguably the most aggressive of the ten tracks, taking a harsh guitar sample and grinding it against the soundscape for a sucker punch of a hook, but "Run Run Blood," tinged with East Asian influences, takes the silver-plated award.

As the 35-minute set comes to a close, it's hard to grasp what kind of journey it just took listeners on. The album that begins with "Funeral Pyre," a hypnotizing track that paints the lingering image of a recently departed loved one, is the same album that ends with a danceable little ditty that instructs us to "shake, you know you want to shake, keep going, now" because "we all got a little bit a' hoe in us." But in retrospect, this is a confessional album of frustration, heartbreak, and loss. Despite the continuation of dark sonic influences, the closing track, then, offers the promise that this musical therapy session was a success.

Three is available now under Republic Records.

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