For Phantogram, Ceremony was about just that. The record represents a returning to self, a ritualisation of identity. A yearning to re-write what’s normal in the face of some kind of deep existential disruption.
Ceremony is also a gesture of triumph in the face of loss. And on their first album in nearly four years, the band hold the notion of happiness up to the light, and in the end, they find the peace for which they’re searching.
Returning with their first album in nearly four years, Phantogram create a ceremony out of everyday life, in a yearning to find moments of fulfilment.
Phantogram is very much a manifestation of the partnership of its two members: Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. It exists in a space in which they converge creatively, and for this record, in particular, they found themselves wanting to retrace the origins of those moments that make Phantogram what it is.
Following the release of their acclaimed last album Three in 2016, the pair spent years on the road touring. It was a time which, retrospectively, feels like being stuck in a bubble. After Barthel bought a house in the Laurel Canyon with an internal recording studio, she and Carter decided to get to work again, and they began writing Ceremony.
And in that process – making art, listening to records, and writing music on their own time, in the secluded Laurel Canyon hills – they felt like they were somehow returning to their roots. It was something they didn’t realise they were longing for.
“That’s why we named the record Ceremony,” Barthel described.
“We were trying to understand, I guess, what our ceremony was, because everyone has their own ritual. For us, Phantogram is our ceremony, and when we play shows we invite people to be a part of it.”
Yet just as much as Ceremony manifests the internal world shared by Barthel and Carter, it feels, inevitably as though there is a third, silent presence that exists on the album. That person is Barthel’s sister, Becky, who passed away from suicide in 2016.
“Ceremony was inspired by self-care and seeing how common of a struggle everyday life had become,” Barthel described in a post on Facebook last week.
“What is life after suicide? How do we move forward? How do we pick up where we left off? How do we save ourselves from this seemingly endless cycle of love and loss?”
Starting with the soulfully fervent Dear God, background vocals foreground the question: “What would I do in a world without you?” In many ways, Ceremony is an answer to that very question. The record is a returning to normal. The new normal. A celebration of the ritual of everyday life, the present moment.
When Barthel sings, “Take me out of this world I’m living in/Tell, tell my friends ’cause I know I wanna see again,” we’re not quite sure if its a longing to return to the real world after a sojourn in the dreamlike space of grief, or whether, more morbidly, it’s a longing to join her sister. Either way, it feels like an expression of wanting to change state, to leave something behind, and to venture somewhere new.
Sonically the band are as confident as ever on Ceremony. Dear God is followed by a series of hard-hitting pop tracks including In A Spiral, Into Happiness, and Pedestal. Barthel and Carter have always been masters of texture, tension and release, and lunging hook-filled choruses.
As always, their songs are furnished with the offbeat sonic landscapes idiosyncratic of the band. In many ways, this dynamic between tension and release – or even edgy and mainstream – is most palpable in the first single, Into Happiness. Here, Carter’s vocals preside over lurching, triphop-tinged verses, which triumphantly make way for gliding choruses sung Barthel, bass-heavy and ornamented with glittering synth lines.
Whilst Ceremony may represent a celebration of life, it’s far from all being positive. The album is marred by pain and doubt. On Glowing, Barthel intimately narrates the state of grief, backed by soft keyboards and whirring synths: “All I needed was for time to pass away/All I needed was to pass the time away/But it still keeps going and going and going/So we still kept glowing, glowing, glowing, but no one came.” It’s one of the most powerful moments on the record and demonstrates the importance of those softer moments in the sonic world of Phantogram.
On the final, title track, Ceremony, the band provide one of the most breathtaking moments. “Falling in a swimming pool/Naked in the neon moon/Hang back, hang back/Just laugh,” Barthel sings, delineating a series of surreal images. “Animate my lonely/Solo ceremony/Insomniac/Come back.”
If the album is a tribute to the ceremony of everyday life, then the final track represents those moments when you are alone with your own thoughts and memories, a dream-like state. It’s a moment of reflection, and in the end, it’s not necessarily even happiness. It’s acceptance.
Ceremony is out now, grab your copy here.