Phantogram: Our Songs Are About Love and Hope and Life and Death
By Reyan Ali
Pop music has long enjoyed -- and idolized -- partying, but over the last half-decade, songs about partying have grown increasingly hollow and obligated. Bangers like Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" and Ke$ha's "Take It Off" are hymns of unadulterated debauchery, placing life-validating faith in boozing, screwing, dancing, drunken spending and other acts of hedonism and/or stupidity. But these songs celebrate for celebration's sake -- rather than any occasion -- because their culture somehow agrees that partying's, like, the best thing ever. Affectation, trendiness and meaninglessness hover over these tunes like existential rain clouds.
That perspective on contemporary music could have inspired Phantogram's "Celebrating Nothing."
The track -- which appears on the Saratoga Springs, New York, duo's new self-titled EP -- uses all the typical Phantogram ingredients to top-shelf effect. It's built on a cunningly crisp trip-hop-born beat, Sarah Barthel's levitating and cobweb-textured vocals, and surreal, sullen lyrics from Josh Carter (who pens the majority of the band's words). "I tell myself I'm fine in celebrating nothing/And all the time I waste on celebrating nothing," Barthel sings, lamenting as if trapped in a corner of some dim club where she's understood the true depth of party-fixated pop.
The track stays mopey and pensive, with Barthel even delivering a couple of phrases -- "How many times can I blow it all? How many times will I burn it down?" -- that sound like sneering take-offs on the language pop songs use to hype people up for a good time. As "Celebrating Nothing" unravels, Barthel soon realizes the emptiness and inefficiency of her own existence and learns to loathe that, too.
Then again, there's a very good chance that this party angle has nothing to do with what this song is actually about. When I throw an abridged version of the above reading at Carter before asking for specifics on its real meaning, he gives a quick, cagey response. "What you said, that's a really cool interpretation, so let's just leave it at that," he says. Earlier in our conversation, he shares his own distaste for listening to music when he knows precisely what its writer is thinking and adds, "It's really cool to hear people interpret the songs [and] tell me what it means to them because often, they're not even close to what the song means to me."
That sense of mystery plays a substantial role in Phantogram's appeal. The pair's gorgeous electronic architecture allows their sonics to feel wondrously captivating in its distant spirit. Phantogram tracks generally float by like lucid dreams that typically end on a gray or pitch-black note (though Carter has argued that their songs always keep light at the end of the tunnel).
"Mouthful of Diamonds" is about secrecy and false promises -- rich enough to score the climax of a (good) film about spies falling out love. "When I'm Small" concerns Barthel's nebulous distaste for Lucy, a loosely sketched character who is either in hiding or dead. "16 Years" -- a song that references "a private ghost chain" and "mechanical joy" -- is a murky mixture of nostalgia, sadness and hope.
In interviews, Carter and Barthel -- two old friends who launched this project in 2007 -- come across as forthcoming and forthright. Trampolines heavily figure into the early days of their friendship (as they've repeatedly noted), and they're more than willing to crack wise in conversation, so just where does all this darkness stem from? "That just seems to be an energy that helps us create. I'm not going to sing about rainbows and lollipops and unicorns and stuff like that. It's not what comes naturally out of me when I'm writing.
"We're definitely not unhappy people, but we've gone through certain periods in our lives that aren't great," he says, before leaving another thread unclosed. "But you know, I think our songs are about love and hope and life and existence and death, so if they are kind of gloomy, then that's just how they are to people."
Phantogram are scheduled to perform Wednesday, October 23, at Crescent Ballroom.
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