Album Review: 'Devastator' - Phantom Planet
The release of Phantom Planet’s Devastator marks the band’s (second) official return from an extensive, twelve-year hiatus. As their fifth installment, Devastator delivers a pot-pourri of emotions ranging from agonizing heartbreak to sanguine nostalgia, and all the feel-good vibes in between. This record perfectly personifies a summer full of love and loss, hopelessness and yearning. It takes you on a journey as you travel down open roads of pure bliss and find dead ends of grief and sorrow. Like most summer releases, Devastator possesses the exact musical formula to turn a grueling road trip into a memorable one. So, buckle your seatbelts, toss that face mask in the back seat, and get ready for a wild ride.
Devastator begins with a cover of frontman Alex Greenwald’s own song, “BALISONG.” Originally released in 2014 on Greenwald’s solo record Yo, “BALISONG” describes a new lover as being fierce, strong-willed, and maybe not entirely accepted by those closest to him. While there are accusations about her intentions, he trusts her over all the speculations. He directly compares her to a balisong, or a butterfly knife. This type of blade has restrictions to carry and sell in the States, and parallels how his family views his relationship as having limitations. His balisong is pretty to look at, but she’s also razor sharp and ready to defend herself and the ones she loves.
In contrast, the 2019 rerelease of “BALISONG” is a lot heavier and more satisfying instrumentally. The newer version has more dynamics between the verses and choruses, even bringing the song down to an a cappella whisper at one point. By adding a full band to the track, Phantom Planet has reimagined this song and effectively set the bar for the rest of the record.
Following the introduction of the sweet balisong is “Party Animal,” another oldie but a finally finished goodie. “Party Animal” was created as a concept back in 2008 and eventually made its official debut in 2019 as the second single off Devastator. The song has a rave party sound and even mentions the 80s club scene during the first verse. Simply put, this song is about feeling like a caged animal during the day and becoming a party animal at night. If we dig a little deeper, hidden within the desperation to have a good time, the lyrics describe a variation in emotions. In the first verse, the lyrics ‘so low, I think I touched the other side/who else here’s only feeling half alive’ narrates the feeling of monotony and depression that the working person has when living in a day-to-day routine. During the bridge, the lyrics change to ‘so high, I think I touched the other side/who else here’s only feeling half alive,’ denoting the exact opposite of that former feeling. Now, in a state of euphoria, the party animal has come out to play.
Devastator maintains a modern rock sound with small callbacks to the 80s and 90s throughout its songs, but the third track has a more mellow, 70s rock vibe. “Only One” starts off much slower and warmer than the first two songs, but tells a love story all the same. This time on an open highway, our crooner is chasing after the one true love of his life. “Only One” wouldn’t be a Phantom Planet song without the grungy bass solo amidst the bridge. The theme of unconditional love continues into “Leave a Little Light On.”
The fourth track returns to the root of Devastator’s heavy and dark sound. “Leave a Little Light On” tackles the very real truth about mental illness and its effects on a relationship. Greenwald casts himself as a light within someone’s darkness and promises to always try to listen and understand what they’re going through. When he can’t, he’ll simply be there for them as a guide back to sanity. The lyrics ‘I don’t care if I have to spend the evening in/trying to strike some flint to find your spark’ from the first verse portray his efforts in attempting to pull his partner out of their rut. The song starts to get cluttered through the bridge because there are two vocal parts overlying one another. It’s a small nuance, but it demonstrates exactly how it feels to be overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts.
So far, Devastator is flooded with selfless love and late night fun, but starts to take a turn with “Time Moves On.” Although hopeful, “Time Moves On” is a breakup song that has a bit of a pop vibe, which sets it apart from the rest of the record. There is an element of forgiveness and acceptance that the lyrics give, especially with the bridge: ‘when we first met/we'd already been severed/love's quick with goodbyes/but with us forever.’ He is acknowledging that most relationships don’t work out, but that they also stay with you for the rest of your life. “Time Moves On” transitions into “Through The Trees” so smoothly, as if to continue the breakup story.
“Through The Trees” is the most melancholic song on Devastator. It is full to the brim of raw emotion and with following “Time Moves On,” it presents itself as its polar opposite. Instead of being optimistic about his breakup, he is allowing his grief to drown him. “Through The Trees” has the most descriptive lyrics on the record as it illustrates a dark and gloomy night set in a forest. There are two callbacks to previous songs. ‘I knew she was grief from the start’ directly relates to ‘when we first met/we’d already been severed’ from “Time Moves On;” and ‘as the wind blows through the trees/I can hear her speak to me’ reminds us of ‘when a light burst on the highway/and I thought I heard your name/if it was only in my head/well, I heard it just the same’ from “Only One.”
Immediately following this heartbreak, Greenwald can sense others starting to shut him out as he knowingly carries himself through his despair, letting it completely consume him.
‘Now back on the gated community turf
Where the call to come home just gets lost in the surf
All the neighbors have bolted their doors
While the line that I walk opens out to the shore
Yeah, I know I’m down since I heard her goodbye
Some reminder of how I’d been living a lie
Stepping out on the water’s reflected moonlight
Got me shivering cold after sinking from sight’
As the song that is smack dab in the middle of the record, “Through The Trees” becomes the album’s focal point with every other song trickling off from it emotionally. No other song strips down every wall and wears its bleeding heart on its sleeve the way that this one does, therefore making it the best song on Devastator.
Fortunately for Phantom Planet fans, the jams don’t stop there as “Through The Trees” fades into “Torture Me.” The album’s seventh track depicts an impending breakup and the emotional and mental turmoil that anxiety causes. Metaphorically, he feels imprisoned like a hostage in the relationship and knows that it’ll end soon, but he doesn’t know when to expect it. In the first verse, there’s a nod to Reign In Blood, an album by Slayer which closes with “Raining Blood,” a song about being trapped in purgatory.
However, life isn’t only about falling in love and struggling with loss. There are other ways that it can break your heart and Phantom Planet dives into the sentiment of hopelessness with “Dear Dead End”. Accompanied by a soothing instrumental track, “Dear Dead End” takes a nostalgic turn and reflects on a life that’s already been lived to the fullest. It wallows in the woeful sadness of feeling washed up and dejected until it finds a new path to keep going, and finally, he can leave this attitude behind. The road trip of life metaphor continues with “Waiting For The Lights To Change,” a story about receiving many, many mixed signals within a relationship that seems to be fizzling out.
“Waiting For The Lights To Change” reverses the roles from “Leave a Little Light On” in that our protagonist is now the one needing some mental support. ‘It’s starting to rain again/flooding my brain again/when you opened your door for me/but I could not come in’ shows his struggles to accept her love and encouragement. The red light/green light aspect of their relationship ultimately causes uncertainty and drives a wedge between them for good.
The final two songs of Devastator approach the band’s return to the music scene. “Gold Body Spray” is a beautiful piano ballad that brings back the feeling of having no future. The lyrics are simple and self-reflective, but are emphasized with an orchestral and organ accompaniment, giving the song a spooky finish before transitioning into “ROTK”. Just like the opening track “BALISONG”, the closing song was also originally released on Alex Greenwald’s Yo. “ROTK”, or Return of the King, has an almost futuristic, spacy vibe to it. The song comes as a promise to Phantom Planet’s fans that they will always be back with something new. ‘The end is really the beginning/you’ll find out when I return” are the final lyrics of the record, and as an easter egg, “ROTK” transitions right back into “BALISONG”, so the ending is really the beginning.