On the cover of Phantogram’s Three, a fire rages and smoke bellows toward the sky. The orange flames meet the blue evening light in the most dramatic contrast. Gone are the days of timid indie rock: A new Phantogram is here. The duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter is loud and raw as they find their footing on the 10-song album. Not that you’d realize it at first — the opening track, “Funeral Pyre,” doesn’t reveal the album’s later surprises and sticks to the band’s trademark soaring vocals and driving synths.
But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.
It’s difficult to describe the album as a cohesive work because each song feels influenced by a different genre. “Same Old Blues,” for example, suffers from shallow lyrics punctuated by the stomping drums of a Carrie Underwood-esque country anthem. Barthel’s voice sounds like a pop record, but electric guitar and grimy synthesizers shatter the cutesy image toward the end of the song — a trend that continues throughout the album.
It’s the inception of a new Phantogram — angsty and willing to experiment. Certainly, it doesn’t always work. “Run Run Blood” is a sloppy attempt at a hardcore, Monster Energy drink-infused mix of rock and electronic. But coming from Phantogram, it’s just confusing. It’s almost cringeworthy in concept, and weak lyrics such as “Extra, extra, read all about it/ You think you slow me down? I highly doubt it” don’t help the execution. But other risks are refreshing. “You’re Mine” is trendy and invigorating, like a pop-influenced track from Arctic Monkeys’ AM.
But surprisingly, for an album that spends so much time experimenting with noise, the softer moments on Three are the strongest. Carter’s voice shines in duets such as “Answer,” a mid-tempo ballad that explores the space between a choppy piano line and the reoccurring twang of electric guitar. “Destroyer,” which serves as the much-needed lull after “Run Run Blood,” is a slice of indie rock indebted to The xx. It’s slow, sensual and intense, starting with quiet kisses of piano and culminating in a throbbing, fiery chorus.
The problem with Three is that it has great elements, but never lives up to be more than the sum of its parts. Like a Thanksgiving plate containing one tablespoon of each dish, it leaves the listener wanting more of something, everything and anything. To be fair, it’s rare to see indie rock bands move out of their comfort zone and test drive new styles like Phantogram does on Three. But it needs refinement; a main course that first anchors the album, then allows room for sides. Three is the perfect setup, and a sign that Phantogram is embracing the missteps that come with artistic evolution.