Phantogram is a New York duo composed of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. The two have been carving out their own world of electronic indie music since 2007. Their music has traversed many genres, from so-called ‘nightlife streetbeat’ to plain old electronic lounge. My favorite term for Phantogram is ‘psych pop’: it refers not just to psychedelic music but also psychology, since the band is heavy on both. They’ve quietly mastered the art of a synthy soundscape, and on Ceremony, they’re driving in a more comfortably pop direction than ever before.
The kickoff song is called “Dear God.” It is a sonic departure from Phantogram’s previous work (much more tightly woven and less dynamic), but immediately recalls the emotional sharpness. Barthel begins nonchalantly with a death wish: “take me out / of this world I’m living in.” The repetition of “hey, dear God” is novel enough that it never gets old, maybe because it’s framed with nonsense: “show me how to rope a dope / don’t know why.”
Lyrical brashness, intense emotion, and psych-pop bravery have always been the staples of Phantogram’s music. On “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” a standout song of theirs from 2016’s Three, Barthel is shamelessly simple in the chorus: “used to take one / now it takes four /
you don’t get me high anymore.” Later in the song she continues earnestly: “stare with me into the abyss.” This, the highest form of lyrical drama — stare with me into the abyss?– is paired with screechy synths and a clean head voice.
This trademark kind of offbeat lyricism is not lost on Ceremony. Sometimes it is a little too obvious how pleased they are with their own quips, as on “Into Happiness.” (The line “fall into happiness / wish you could be here” repeats just one too many times.) But there are lyrical gems here, too, as in the beginning of “Pedestal”: “You can make a hospital lovely.” Ceremony
shines when the brash novelty of the lyrics seems purposeful instead of hidden. On “Pedestal,” the boldest lines are set off somewhat from the rest, emphasized.
Sometimes, though, the album becomes buried in predictable synths or predictable stories. “In a Spiral” is a weak attempt to criticize the fake-world of the Internet. The concept has been done before in many a Black Mirror episode: “I’m a void, in a hole, in a hollow / fantasy on our feed
when I follow.” Barthel also sounds apathetic, which is a hard sell, especially when paired with the intense emotion of the other songs.
Moments of discomfort on Ceremony are crucial, because they jar us into listening. At their worst, Phantogram sounds like airplane music: an easy distraction that can just as easily fade into the background.
The middle section of the album– especially “Love Me Now” and “Let Me Down”– falls into this kind of lull. Here, Phantogram becomes enamored with their own well-tested songwriting ability. They can write a textbook electronic chorus that drives gently, but there is nothing special about some of these middle songs. Phantogram is playing it safe in order to also play it poppy. The lull mostly ends with “Mister Impossible.” The song is still muddy (“I’m the sun and the moon and the stars” is a hard lyric to believe), but Josh Carter’s gravely voice mimics the gravely synths in the background.
By the end of the album, though, Phantogram has shaken off all fear of embarrassment. “Glowing” strips away most of the slick sonic landscape in exchange for a clear view of Barthel’s strongest vocals yet. This song is the climax of Ceremony: a wild and poignant ode to time slipping away. It ends in quiet disappointment: “In your eyes, there’s nothing there / nothing
there / I see nothing there / wave goodbye / it’s gone away.” On “Glowing,” the gauche and golden title of Ceremony finally makes sense.
“Gaunt Kids” is great too, by far the best track on the album. It is dark and sexy nighttime lounge music, both funny and overwhelming. I wish they had figured out the magic of “Gaunt Kids” earlier in the album: “make the bed / I’m happy, homeless, helpless energy.” And the bassline on the final song (and title track) is alone worth the price of admission. The album squeaks out with guitar screams and without a word.
Ceremony is an album about moving around in psychological states. Here, we fall into happiness, realize the person we love has made a hospital lovely, start on our way or stay on their mind (“Gaunt Kids”), enter a daydream where everybody knows us (“Ceremony”). By the end, we have exited and entered many different places, and are perhaps surprised at where we land. Ceremony loses when that journey is muddied, and works best when we are made viscerally aware of our sliding.
“All I needed was for light to reach the plane,” sings Barthel on “Glowing.” “All I needed was you to find me on a wave.”