Phantogram’s new record “Ceremony” opens with an eerily cheerful group of voices singing “what would I do in a world without you?” It’s a suitable start to an album from Phantogram, a band known for their utilization of juxtaposition. On “Ceremony,” the duo turns their focus to confronting the duality of loss.
Over the course of just under 40 minutes, the band attempts to reckon with the deep personal loss that half the duo faced and the larger cultural losses we have had in the past few years to suicide. It is also a product of the lost time that the band has traded for their success and grueling tour schedule.
The album comes just after the ten year anniversary of the band’s debut LP “Eyelid Movies.” But, the band dates back even further. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have been friends since early childhood and started making music together in 2007. “Ceremony” is their fourth album and displays the growth the band has made, using a wider range of sonic influences and the change in Barthel’s vocals.
The band had reached a career-high with the release of “Three” in 2016. The album hit Top 10 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and the lead single, “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” peaked at number six on the alternative radio chart. The project was met with equal critical acclaim and landed the band some major sync placements in advertisements for Apple, Peloton and several TV shows.
It was during this massive success, that Barthel and Josh Carter – friends since early childhood — were mourning the suicide of Barthel’s sister, Becky. The band spent the next two and a half years touring the world promoting “Three.” But when that tour came to an end, Phantogram had to confront what had happened while they were away on the road.
“After ‘Three,’ it was a time to reflect in a way we never had before. Life after losing someone from suicide is very confusing. Performing those songs every night kept us stuck in that one moment. It didn’t allow us to move forward and grow as people. When the tour was over, we had to step outside of the Phantogram bubble and face real life. It almost felt like we were in survival mode. ‘Ceremony’ was inspired by self-care and seeing how common of a struggle everyday life had become,” Barthel explained in a letter to fans before the release.
The result is an album built upon dark synths, hefty drums and mutated vocals dancing in between the light and the dark. It cuts dark sonics and themes with hopeful lyrics and light vocal elements. It keeps their experimental heart of Phantogram but creates hooks with a sharper sensibility that grounds the more far fetched productions.
The album was created with a small team. Outside of the band’s two members, Boots and Andrew Dawson are the only credited writers and producers on most tracks. Both of these artists are more well known for work in the R&B and hip hop space. Boots has worked on Beyonce’s last two albums; Dawson is credited on projects from various G.O.O.D. Music artists.
While the tracks of “Ceremony” are laced with the heartbreak of suicide and coming back into their life after tour, they are written with a degree of ambiguity that makes them more universal. For example, the lead singles, “Pedestal” and “Into Happiness, ” could easily be interpreted as songs of unrequited love or break up tracks. It is the greater space that these songs occupy that makes listening to them all the richer.
“Ceremony” is a refreshed, bold and riveting 11 track album. It is the sound that Phantogram has defined for themselves over the past ten years dialed up to its extremes and refined to its strongest components.