What I initially contested most with Phoenix’s latest effort was their choice of ostentatious song titles and artwork, which together connoted something of a revolution in music. Name-checking Mozart in the album title, and Franz Liszt in the single ‘Lizstomania‘ – arguably music’s first “rock star” – who was notorious for hosting shows where hundreds of screaming women’s cheers would rival his piano’s timbre, already seemed bizarre. Referencing 1855 to 1901 – the beginning of the most significant century in human history, the first Industrial Revolution, or the life-span of Parisian painter Jules Ballavoine, whose work focused on contrasting the fragility of timeless objects like jewels and flowers, with the fleeting nature of female enchantresses du jour – all also seemed a bit pretentious and inappropriate to me. And then there were the Dr. Strangelove bombs in the LP’s cover art, which somehow seemed to suggest that Phoenix was about to wage war (in pastel-chicness) on the status-quo of music.
These references bothered me quite a bit, until I realized that it may all be a little bit of Parisian-irony. Is Phoenix poking a little bit of fun at the concept of an album which takes itself too seriously, in the same way that Franz Liszt performances poked fun at the sobering Mozarts of his genre’s ancestry, or in the same way that Jules Ballavoine poked fun at his subjects who were all afforded their lifestyles by the Industrial Revolution? After several sleepless nights, the logic in this paradox fit better to me, and let me comfortably accept Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix as the ironic embodiment of a sarcastic fight on concept albums in being a non-concept concept album itself. What a concept!
It got me thinking that some albums are just made to be played during a particular season. Last year, MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular, Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colors and Born Ruffian’s Red, Yellow and Blue were all released prior to the summer, but became everyone’s favourite bangers by the time the sun and heat set in. To me, part of what makes a summer album special is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and reliably delivers to an eclectic audience in key summer moments, like campfires, barbeques, beach/harbour days, road-trips and other events that white people and kids on the OC used to like. This year, having come out of a winter of head-scratching concept albums, mind fucks, and introspective emotional sagas, starting the summer with straight-forward pop from a band that, 3 albums in, you know you can trust, is like the feeling of eating a melting ice cream cone after chasing down the truck til you’re out of breath, on a warm day in July. Not to knock the winter-soundscape – it serves a purpose – but right now, nothing feels better than Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
So far 2009 has been all about animals in music, from Animal Collective to Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear to Deerhunter. Each of these animals has given us a “beast” of an album (or EP) to enjoy and I’m glad to say that the latest offering from the Versailles-hailing non-mythical-creature-foursome, is – in my mind – their best AND one of the year’s best. What I’ve always loved about Phoenix is that their sound has managed to consistently emerge as fresh and distinct yet easily accessible. There hasn’t been huge growth from one album to the next in their discography, chockablock with nods to funk, classic rock and indie pop since their early Air remixes, carrying over to the timeless ‘Too Young’ and ‘Everything Is Everything’. What has perhaps evolved in their sound, is an increasing sense of effortlessness in the way their breakdowns and build-ups are strung together and paired with lyrics, arguably, more appropriately than ever before. What hasn’t changed at all on the other hand, is the band’s undeniable ability to pull together a series of feel-good summer anthems like no one else.
The album kicks-off with ‘Lizstomania’, which proves this in spades. Probably the stand-out track, for most, off the album, laced with guitar riffs, from the first ‘Lisztian’-1-2-licks on the piano, the song builds and evokes a timeless feeling of freedom without boundaries. On the second track, ‘1901’, they play with their long-time friend – fat-ass synths – and manage to not sound played-out in a post-MGMT/M83 world.
From this point on, I really like everything, but ‘Love Like a Sunset’ and the complete contrast in ‘Lasso’, as well as ‘Girlfriend’, particularly stand out. ‘Love Like a Sunset’ shows the most evolution in the band’s sound, with a sleepy-turned-sweeping and haunting instrumental build as Thomas Mars’ vocals, usually a permanent feature in their songs, is used atmospherically at the end of the track, melding in with the surrounding acoustic instrumentation featuring the album’s simplest but most poignant lyrics:
Right where it starts and ends
When did we start the end?
Where it starts it ends
Love like a sunset
I could listen to it a hundred times, but it won’t be complete until I do while watching a sunrise.
So, are they starting a revolution? No. Will naughty female enchantresses resolve their latent-daddy issues by screaming fanatically at their shows à la Franz Liszt? Probably not, they’ll leave that for the Jonas Bros. Will Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix be the effort that helps Phoenix “blow up” and provide a soundtrack to countless hours of summer-fun? I’m not a betting man, but I’d put 1,901 francs on it.