2009 album from the French Electro-Rockers. Born out of restlessness and a steady hunt for inspiration, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a career-defining album filled with the band's signature melding of synthetics and organics, sharp, danceable rhythms, infectious choruses with a considerable dose of aural panache and candy-colored pop sensibilities.
Review by Andy Kellman
Realigned with Philippe Zdar, the half of Cassius who mixed United, Phoenix make adjustments on the polarizing characteristics of their second and third albums -- the pokey and occasionally listless Alphabetical, the jagged and tune-deficient It's Never Been Like That -- with some of the most direct and enjoyable songs they've made to date. The two opening songs, the bopping "Lisztomania" and the buzzing "1901," are so immediate and prone to habitual play that the remainder of the album is bound to be neglected. There is plenty to like beyond that point, including "Lasso," which niftily alternates between a tangled rhythm and tight-spiral riffing, and the labyrinthine "Pt. 1" of "Love Like a Sunset," which serves the same purpose as the extended instrumental passages on Roxy Music's Avalon, at least until its rousing conclusion and shift into "Pt. 2." Beyond containing the band's best, most efficient songwriting, the album also stands apart from the first three studio albums by projecting a cool punch that is unforced. Vocalist Thomas Mars, more bright-eyed and youthful than ever, also sounds more a part of these songs, rather than coming across as a protruding element that clashes against the instruments. Maybe they've just hit their stride.
At one point in the schlocky 1975 musical comedy Lisztomania, Roger Daltrey whips out an absurdly large phallus and no less than five women simultaneously straddle it like a cannon. It's as insane as it sounds. In the movie, Daltrey plays Franz Liszt, the 19th century Hungarian pianist and composer known for his flamboyant playing style-- hysterical women fought over his handkerchiefs at concerts more than a century before the Beatles. Whereas Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music represented all things respectable and classicist, Liszt was a Romantic hero full of flash; Amadeus won eight Oscars, Lisztomania boasts lines like, "Your big ambition was to stick your working-class cock up a piece of high-class crumpet." With their fourth album, Phoenix reference both composers and hone in on an elusive target somewhere between Mozart's formal wonders and Listz's dramatic flair. While the album's 10 songs are arranged and executed with virtuoso pop-rock precision, they chronicle nothing but angst, confusion, disappointment, and despair. It's truly universal-- everybody live, love, and die.
Much of the album's internal conflict is laid out in its first couple lines. "So sentimental; not sentimental, no!/ Romantic; not disgusting yet," sings frontman Thomas Mars on opener "Lisztomania", sounding like a madman with two tiny creatures whispering into each ear. Mars keeps this treacherous divide in mind throughout Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and the rest of the record successfully avoids mush while keeping its beating heart intact. And the issue of thematic directness is especially important to Phoenix-- this is an established indie band writing songs about love that are armed with hooks primed for a mainstream embrace. Just listen to the invincible crescendo of Wolfgang's "Countdown"-- especially that little Coldplay-esque piano twinkle about three and a half minutes in-- and realize that these guys are a few Chris Martin-isms away from staggering ubiquity. They're a bona fide "should be bigger" band.
But, as their songs tighten into increasingly effective bursts of pop, Mars is breaking up his words and meanings into smaller and smaller fragments. His isn't a self-congratulatory, indie-nerd triumph, though, i.e., Mars isn't being cryptic to be an asshole. He's getting better and more sophisticated as his band discards anything-- an outro, a bridge, an extra hi-hat hit-- that could be deemed superfluous. Sure: YouTube tells us this album will make a generation-spanning touchstone like The Breakfast Club that much better. It'll also hit your gut if you listen hard enough. There are layers here-- maybe too many layers for the biggest rooms.
"I feel too young," went the hook on Phoenix's innocent and bittersweet 2000 debut single. Back then, the quartet was following a wave of Gallic cool led by friends Daft Punk and Air. Nearly 10 years on and this casually chic group has grown into something unique-- Wolfgang isn't a tweaked Air record or a tweaked Strokes record as much as it's a Phoenix record. Gone is the sometimes-flimsy blue-eyed soul of their first two LPs, replaced with a glossier take on the uptick guitars and sampled snare snaps of 2006's brilliant It's Never Been Like That. And they're not feeling so young anymore, either. "Do you remember when 21 years was old?" muses Mars on "Countdown". Growing up, looking back, and peeking ahead usually isn't this enjoyable.
Its unflappable sonic sheen gives Wolfgang some winsome 80s nostalgia, but smart modern touches-- a constant near-Auto-Tune vocal effect, Justice-lite keyboard stabs on "1901"-- ensure its of-the-moment-ness. Meanwhile, Mars hints at a time and space where he's everywhere-- or nowhere-- all at once. "Acres/ Visible horizon/ Right where it starts and ends/ When did we start the end?" he wonders aloud at the end of the krautrocking epic "Love Is a Sunset", just after the song has blasted into a stratosphere where a diminishing horizon line is the only clear thing in sight. "Rome" likens a collapsing relationship to a collapsed empire; "2000 years remain in a trash can." And, on "Countdown", Mars' ennui reaches its peak as he sings, "True and everlasting didn't last that long." But he's not sad-sacking along, head down, no umbrella. He's pumped. Excited. With the band going full-bore behind him, he concludes the most ebullient song about existential inevitability in recent memory with an impassioned rallying cry: "We're the lonesome! We're the lonesome!" All together now.
At another point in Lisztomania, Roger Daltrey's entire body is sucked into a devilish princess' underthings. (Seriously.) Before that happens, though, the cigar-chomping heiress quotes Oscar Wilde while explaining her unladylike smoking habit, "It's the perfect form of pleasure, it's exquisite and leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one ask?" Phoenix seem to understand this line of thinking-- and not just because they look like a group of guys who know their Gauloises. They're pleasure-pushers, filling tunes with riffs, phrases, and beats a five-year-old could love. But, on Wolfgang, those same songs are unfulfilled-- and this band wouldn't have it any other way. There's beauty in a sunset. Phoenix are wringing it out.
— Ryan Dombal, May 27, 2009
Obviously, there is a great deal wrong with a society that does not immediately recognize Phoenix as the best pop band going, and this, their Amadeus, as one of the best, perhaps the best (certainly the catchiest) half-hour of early-aughts revivalism since that scene broke. And though this isn’t a rebirth of big stupid pop (that, by this point, seems unlikely), it at least lets go of a few hundred useless contraptions that have got between us (at our computers) and the big stupid pop extravaganza happening with the well-dressed French teenagers outside.
Phoenix happily abandon any sense that a band should strive for much of anything, and this strikes me as very rock ‘n roll. Their back catalogue is to date littered with fantastic songs and one undeniable full-length in It’s Never Been Like That (2006); a record where, rather than trudge some overfamiliar warpath into esoteric third-album experimental territory, they instead put up their hands, feigned indifference and slunk into retreat. Phoenix decided to retreat. Where did they retreat? Into Phoenix. Phoenix is Phoenix and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is nothing but the most Phoenix-like Phoenix album. This makes it the best Phoenix album.
Leave the tribal tattoos to the other bands. Let them have their deliberate acts of experimentation and murder. The story of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is real simple and basically hinges on what happens when a thick fuzzy synth meets a sleepy French dude. And how our rattled preconceptions of how essentially wrong that sounds are challenged by the presence of a band to keep things ticking, and to not let vocalist Thomas Mars fall asleep. Seriously—have you seen pictures of this guy? Nobody so on point with their “ums,” “uhs” and “ahs” should be looking that dopey. Still, he nails this material with his own special melancholic satisfaction. Though we marvel at the recovered thrill of jangly guitar chords, or the way all these interlocking instruments mock each other across the channels and do a hundred-and-one cool summery melodious things that at some points (check: the guitar break before the first chorus of “Armistice,” the background snare-fill swishing past the bridge of “Lasso”) seem less silly parts of songs as they do imperatives of national purpose. Not fucking kidding here. The lazy synth-washes spilling all over “Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)” actually sounds like nostalgia, like John Hughes before the Internet, like good friends parting.
Some people are going to make the error of calling “Love Like a Sunset” a long unnecessary pretentious thing in an album that otherwise skimps on extending itself past our (and their) patience. And, fine, this band writes great short songs. Perfect miniatures. You can imagine the band writing “Lasso” in the studio, just nodding at each other. This is the exact same band behind “Love Like a Sunset”—except with berets and pencil moustaches and maybe even some expensive cigars. This is the seven minutes that centralises and absolutely makes Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix what it is. This is not a “pretentious” song. It may be the funniest musical interlude I’ve heard in a long, long time. Still, already on our staff we have the dissenters. “How long is it?” they’ll ask. “Seven minutes,” you’ll say precisely. “Seven, though it changes at the last minute.” And then you’ll explain how our current policy for good pop bands to only write good pop songs is basically flawed. Down to Phoenix, here, knocking out this bad pop song—seriously flawed, right—that just happens to be, uh, really fucking good. The band spends the first six minutes impatiently awaiting their cue, building up, slowing down, getting angry at their equipment and then—BAM! It’s a ballad! I dunno. I think that’s pretty amazing and funny. Also funny is “Girlfriend,” but it’s more funny because it’s cheerful.
Yeah, the record’s not perfect; it’s a survey of perfection. It’s an approximation of what that might mean, which is: precise, lean, deliberate. There’s not a wasted moment here, and not one moment overstays it’s welcome, which from a bunch of aristocrats (I get) is pretty frickin’ rich. But money made this record. So did pretty women, pretty sunsets, and the overall ignorance to not really parse through what any of that actually means. I hope they continue parsing their pretty pretty nails. We can sit pretty sold.