Everything below this section was written during the lost year, 2020, when Phantogram released Ceremony. At some point in the weeks after moving to Texas, I sat down and wrote about Phantogram’s 4th album. But as went that year, time slipped and before I knew it, 2021 had arrived and passed me by.
Enter 2022. I’m committed to resurrecting FensePost, and after half a dozen or more posts so far this year, I stumbled upon this mostly coherent, mostly completed, yet unpublished draft that I present to you now with minimal revisions.
I can see why I didn’t publish it. Not only was I entering a bit of my own dark chapter in a new place (ahem, pandemic times), things seemed incomplete given the scope of the gap in my collection.
Alas, I’ll present it to you anyway, this somewhat rambling narrative that seems less about the album and more about the cohesiveness between my mental state at the time and that of the band when they wrote the songs that would become Ceremony.
My Brief Intro into Ceremony by Phantogram
I’ve been a bit stumped on how to approach this one. As I sat down to write a piece on Phantogram’s latest album, Ceremony, I really had no clue where to begin. How do I provide a professional critique on an album by a band that has released several over the past decade, only one other of which (2011’s EP Nightlife) you’ll find in my collection?
The starting place, for me, typically is to dig into what others have written; see what other publications are saying, how they approach it, see what nuances they use, how they relate this music to past music, etc. Then, I draw upon that which I know based on my awareness of the band’s music.
But here it’s incomplete.
I won’t talk about that which I do not know, meaning I’ll probably forgo much discussion of how Ceremony is a progression or regression from the band’s more recent records, or how–as some articles note–the album is “a new chapter” for the band.
I’ll hone in on what I know: Ceremony is brilliant and it’s timely.
In this moment, it’s needed.
But first, a step back.
We Are All Normal People
Lest we forget, we are all normal people. Some of us may be stranger than others. Some of us are shaped more by our experiences, giving us various insecurities or providing us skill others do not have. Some of us are neurodivergent. Some of us are known by many and most of us are known by few. We have varying degrees of influence, validity, and clout.
But we are all normal people. Yet we could equally argue there is no normal as we are all individual and unique.
We as a species like to classify things. Normal and abnormal. Black and white. Red and blue. Light and dark. Right and wrong. We narrow these classifications into two distinctly separate things in our minds and dub them as polar opposites, when the truth is much more nuanced, abstract, and spectrum-based.
Yet this duality never more apparent in times of uncertainty–the year of a national political election, an unprecedented pandemic in modern history. An outspoken many will pick a side, and paint the other in a light that suits their beliefs, often stereotypical.
Where am I going with this?
Spin began their article on the band’s new LP by painting a picture of Phantogram lead vocalist Sarah Barthel conversing with a stranger over fur babies:
Right before she took a seat, Barthel stopped by a chicly dressed Pomeranian. She immediately needed to strike up a conversation with its owner and share photos of her own fur baby, Leroy.
Regardless of your “side”, we are all just people living our lives. Regardless of your influence, clout, or popularity. Regardless of what political affiliation you associate yourself with. Whether you lean left or right, believe the country should open up sooner than later or remain under pandemic lockdown…whether you are a member of a prominent independent band or someone out with their dog.
We are all normal people. We forget that sometimes.
Here’s “Into Happiness” off Ceremony
Back to the Beginning
I remember first hearing about Phantogram a decade ago. I don’t know where I was, what was happening, or anything of the sort. I just recall chatter from my old KZUU friends about a new band that signed to Barsuk Records.
One of the former DJs had made some introductions. He loved the band, and he passed their name to a connection at the label, and they were quickly signed.
Then came Nightlife, the band’s debut EP for the label.
Again, we are all just people. Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes we don’t.
That was kinda when Phantogram blew up. They took a prominent role in this futuristic style of electropop, joining other bands of the day like Purity Ring and Keep Shelly in Athens. They found a welcome home.
Suppression & Living in A Bubble
Around the time Phantogram released their third LP, Three, Barthel lost her sister. Like many of us, we will get lost in what we have going on and not deal with the emotions from a loss, or the problems that we are facing, simply because of that stuff we have to do.
Others of us were conditioned to avoid emotions we deemed as negative or harmful, and thus suppressed them (I know this all too well as an Enneagram Type 9).
But when that comes to an end, we’re left facing those problems and we must confront those emotions. We need to put them somewhere.
Of out that realization for Barthel and Carter, Ceremony was born. Carter notes in the same Spin article:
“I think we needed to go back to a life of normalcy and see what it was like to be a normal human being for a while” he said.
You can see a trend here, right?
Amidst this is the album, which debuted March 6 upon a world screeching to a halt. Economies closing down, businesses shuttering their doors, panic rising.
Suddenly, the world has a new normal and things are changing fast.
Here’s “In a Spiral” off Phantogram’s Ceremony:
There are always meanings to songs. Meanings held close or publicized by the artist that wrote the words. Meanings interpreted by the listener. We associate with songs, and “In a Spiral” was timely to what I experienced in my first few months in Texas.
Phantogram has always been good about juxtaposition of light and dark–upbeat melodies with heavy lyrics and vice versa. Another metaphor for life.
There are always at least two ways to look at something, and we continually struggle to see the viewpoint from the opposing side.
As Timely A Release As Ever There Was
Six days after Ceremony was released and six days after I arrived in my new home, the lockdown began.
I can see the end is coming ’roundLyrics from “In a Spiral” by Phantogram
Every day, every day, in a spiral
Better help me now, I’m going down
Every day, every day, in a spiral
This juxtaposition between light and dark, happy and sad has never been more welcome in a time where uncertainty thrives and we as a society are confined and forced to look inward.