Following their genre-bending collaboration with Big Boi last year, Phantogram’s next direction was always going to be an expansive and confident one. With Sarah Barthel’s dynamic, sultry vocals now commanding more widespread attention and Josh Carter’s glitchy backdrops earning larger stages, the dream pop trip hop duo found themselves on a deserved platform for growth. In enlisting mainstreamers from Ricky Reed’s (Jason Derulo, Meghan Trainor) glossy production to Semisonic’s Dan Wilson (Adele, Taylor Swift) co-writing credit, Phantogram’s transition from Barsuk indies to Republic pride became increasingly clear.
On their aptly-named third record, Three, tracks like opener “Funeral Pyre” and plaintive lines including, “I keep on having this dream / Where I'm stuck in a hole and I can't get out / There's always something that's pulling me down, down, down,” carry extra weight in the context of the abrupt passing of Barthel’s sister, who was also a close friend of Carter, during the album’s creation. Through this lens Phantogram touches truly sobering depths, wondering, "Walk with me to the end / Stare with me into the abyss / Do you feel like letting go? / I wonder how far down it is."
But “Same Old Blues” quickly shows for all the morbidity they mustn’t succumb to moroseness in sound, peaking in a powerful gospel-turned-electronica punch with blistering guitar. Flagship single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" next has Barthel's breathless vocals dancing over Carter's massive, fuzzed-out bass synth bombs at a frenetic pace. “Used to take one / Now it takes four / You don’t get me high anymore,” she cries, and indeed the track is a bold embodiment of the band’s restless climb. Maturing from a humble indie outfit from upstate New York into big league #FestivalKillers rubbing shoulders with Miley Cyrus and rap legends, the duo continues to push themselves to the brink as a louder, flashier, and more sexualized act at every turn.
Featuring a drum machine sonic collage reminiscent of "Don't Move," the sharp standout “Cruel World” seems primed for car commercial levels of ubiquity, but, complete with the nice, subtle touch of the warm fuzz of a vinyl spin we first heard on "When I'm Small," it’s one we wouldn't mind hearing around for some time. With its scattered string samples and equally scattered ramblings, “Barking Dog” is a welcome return to the oft overshadowed strengths of Carter’s increasingly rare lead tracks, but doesn’t quite cut to the same emotional depth as, say, “I Don’t Blame You.”
Urban influences showing through, “You’re Mine”’s electrifying rhythm isn’t unlike - dare I say it - Future’s “Jumpman,” and would feel right at home with Big Boi spitting a verse or two. “Run Run Blood” then features the brass creep of horns contributed by The Antlers’ Darby Cicci, the surprising highlight of a mix that has Phantogram at their most brooding in years. “Destroyer,” in turn, is a vessel for showcasing Barthel’s skyrocketing vocal range.
Hitting the notes required for both dancefloor movability and indie playlist inclusion, Three’s wild sonic and emotional swings can seem jarring. You’d be forgiven for wondering how you got from the initial feelings of loss to the sensual slink of carefree sex anthem “Calling All” in only half an hour, though that transition was long in motion since Big Grams was born. It’s in these ways Phantogram’s third installment sometimes reads less like an album and more like a collection of singles looking to package the eclectic angles of their human condition into different shots at exuberant accessibility, yet each shift arguably feels as natural as the last. Indulging in the instant gratification of radio-ready drops over the more stable, steady charm of classics like “Mouthful of Diamonds,” Three is at times moody and unhinged, but undeniably succeeds at what the duo seems to have set out to do.
Three reveals a Phantogram veering ever closer to the sun in terms of stadium-filling riffs and diamond-polished edges - Carter’s beard and black-rimmed glasses are long gone in favor of basketball jerseys and gold chains, while Barthel has evolved into a full-blown blonde bombshell - but strip it all alway and there’s still enough of their unique charm amidst the beats and bravado for now. What next emerges from the pyre of Three, though, is anyone’s guess.