The duo foreground their most conventional pop sounds on their fourth album, but remain at their best at their strangest.
Phantogram thrive on discomfort. The New York duo’s 2010 debut Eyelid Movies revealed them as masters of tension: their prickly, minimalist trip-hop moved at its own pace, their lyrics full of barbed, abstract images that hinted at bigger stories the band refused to tell. As they’ve crossed over into a mainstream space via Republic Records, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have remained at their best when they’ve refused to let go of this strangeness—as with their excellent, twisted 2016 single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” a pop song about addiction that opens with a line about teeth falling out of your head. But on their bombastic fourth studio album, Ceremony, the band sound thoroughly comfortable.
The album bounds into life with the soul-sampling “Dear God,” perhaps the closest thing there’s ever been to a happy Phantogram song. It’s followed by a run of short, sharp singles, each burying a streak of sorrow below shiny surfaces. The synth-dazzled “Into Happiness,” the best of the bunch, beautifully undercuts its own hook (“Fall into happiness”) with the next line (“Wish you could be here”).
Mostly, though, these songs feel impatient, front-loaded with choruses and stacked on top of one another. Perhaps Barthel is catering to the streaming-age trend towards shorter songs and swifter hooks, but she flattens the nuance of her non-linear, evocative songwriting. On the jagged “In A Spiral,” she delivers the non-committal social commentary “I’m a meme/On a feed/In a spiral”; “Love Me Now,” a brass-driven song at the heart of the record, leans too heavily into the repetition of its hook.
The record’s most powerful moments come in its second, stranger half. On “Glowing,” Barthel leans uncomfortably close to the microphone, her voice ringing in the listener’s skull like ASMR over a backdrop of underwater ambience; that’s followed by “Gaunt Kids,” a prowling, visceral spoken word track spliced with an eerie piano ballad. The title track provides the record’s most gratifying moment, building from a barely-there, moonlit song about insomnia and skinny-dipping into a furious rock jam over nearly six minutes. The tension is thrilling, and a reminder of what this band are capable of when they go to darker, weirder places.
In early 2019, Billie Eilish performed a cover of Phantogram’s “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” on BBC Radio 1, referring to it as one of her “favorite songs.” It’s clear that, along with indie bands like The xx, Phantogram laid the groundwork for the whispered, gothic sound of mainstream pop today. It’s a shame, then, that on their own album, Phantogram foreground their most conventional, clipped pop selves, when their quietest moments are often the loudest of all.