Aaron Bruno, the de facto leader, songwriter, and creative force behind the Los Angeles-based project AWOLNATION, has spent the better part of two decades steering the band’s ship of pop-friendly electronic and alternative rock to millions of record sales and streams, a handful of chart-topping singles, and countless shows played to adoring fans around the world. From the 2010 debut’s smash “Sail” and the hype of sophomore album Run to 2018’s organic-leaning Here Come the Runts and 2020’s rock-forward Angel Miners & the Lightning Riders, plus a handful of EPs, remixes, and a covers album, Bruno has mined his sonic creativity for an output of music on par with anyone’s from the last two decades. Following the pandemic, Bruno parted ways with his record label in favor of a new self-releasing/distribution partnership, formed a hardcore band called The Barbarians of California, and became a first-time father of twin boys, all before finishing his long-awaited fifth full-length album, The Phantom Five.

The Phantom Five is a collection of ten songs that highlights every different impulse and urge Bruno has learned to master with AWOLNATION in a cohesive, anthemic pastiche of modern music. It functions almost as a “greatest hits” album, in the sense that it offers something for everyone who has followed the band’s arc in its celebrated, shape-shifting way. The first single, “Panoramic View,” stands out with its sincerity on its sleeve; written on piano at the very start of the pandemic, Bruno calls it the sincerest and his favorite song on the album. The upstart, tongue-in-cheek blasts like “Jump Sit Stand March” and “When I Was Young,” the Roy Orbison, oldies-inspired ode to beauty and self-destruction “A Letter to No One,” and the jangly segue “City of Nowhere” calling to mind The Cars and Grandaddy, not to mention guest spots from Dead Sara’s Emily Armstrong and Del the Funky Homosapien, reveal how The Phantom Five is concerned with trying to find one’s way to happiness in a bizarrely upside-down time. Bruno credits the album’s overall sense of maturity plus the up-tempo energy on songs like “Party People,” “I Am Happy,” and “Bang Your Head” to the ecstatic moments of Dad-life he has experienced with his boys, while affixing the record’s ever-present frustration with our modern times to pundits, talking heads, and politicians. The final track, “Outta Here,” is a tremendous sign-off to the album that may in fact also tease at Bruno killing the AWOL engine for good. But while it’s too early to know whether The Phantom Five will be AWOLNATION’s swan song, it’s certain that these ten songs represent the culmination of a long, fulfilling journey and the joy one can find in being free, independent, and true to one’s art, and to oneself.