When Phoenix appeared on Saturday Night Live last month to promote its new album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the power-pop quartet performed two new songs. One of them contemplated the popularity of Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt.
Had, say, Fall Out Boy tasked itself with such a homage, it would have been the musical equivalent of Barack Obama admitting that he really enjoys arugula. The band might have been labeled fey and pretentious and doomed forever to the college rock ghetto, where it’s acceptable to know the names of composers that aren’t Mozart.
But nobody held the SNL performance against Phoenix—in fact, it raised the band’s profile considerably. “Lisztomania” went up on iTunes and sold in respectable numbers. Clips from the show were shared and thoroughly blogged about. It was a big success.
This is because Phoenix is not an American band. It’s a French band. And as Frenchmen, the members are somehow entitled to be mildly pompous at all times. It’s expected of them. It’s what allows Phoenix to drop a seven-and-a-half minute suite (“Love Like a Sunset”) into the center of the new album, not to mention a blatant piece of soft-rock homage (“Fences”)—behavior that would be seen as overblown coming from a band from the States.
The band’s Frenchness and the liberty that allows helps make Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the group’s fourth album, about a million times more fun to listen to than anything that the band’s Stateside peers have been putting out as of late. That’s in part because American bands eventually have to make an album about America whether they want to or not. The deadline seems to be somewhere around album three or four. Contemporary examples might be Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication. But neo-new wave bands like the Strokes and the Killers have really struggled in this regard. They’ve either produced an Americana album that failed (the Killers’ Sam’s Town), or tried to bypass this rule and become irrelevant.
By virtue of its background, Phoenix cannot, nor will it ever be asked to, write a Born to Run. There’s no need for them to sweat for credibility on the streets of a runaway American dream. They’re just fine with the Parisian dream—which has slightly narrower streets, Brigitte Bardot, and more than 400 types of cheese.
Therefore, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is free to be just one more ebullient and perfectly crafted pop record. Frontman Thomas Mars deftly and unabashedly cribs from the Darryl Hall school of upper-register acrobatics while his band bashes out expert electro-pop arrangements. It’s a million miles from the dour and soupy bog that is the American cultural zeitgeist.
Phoenix initially came together as a backing band for Air—the other French electronic pop band that’s featured regularly in Sofia Coppola films. But the group’s first two records struggled hard to find a unique voice. United, released in 2000, and its 2004 follow-up, Alphabetical, mostly traded in passable, but hardly revolutionary, spins on blue-eyed soul. Instead, Phoenix’s breakthrough came in 2006, with It’s Never Been Like That, an album that traded soft grooves for edgier guitar-driven power-pop. This gave Phoenix both new life and, relatively speaking, a hit. For a bunch of guys who had spent years trying to pass themselves off as the Gallic answer to Gamble & Huff, the rattling guitar hooks of “Napoleon Says” and “Long Distance Call” came surprisingly easy.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix continues on that path. Lead single “1901” is about as perfect a power-pop song as has been constructed in the last 30 years. Biting synthesizer chords buoy Mars’ vocals until the big, chattering chorus arrives. On earlier Phoenix records Mars spent most of his time crooning soulfully. To be fair, he was pretty good at it. But on “1901” he’s learned to let his voice fray out and stress noticeably at the exciting parts, a simple trick that artfully pumps up the energy level.
Even if they weren’t exactly burbling over with pop-effervescence, Phoenix’s funky years left the band with an impressive sense of rhythm. During “Rome,” guitarists Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz play jittery arpeggiated figures that mimic the rigid patterns of sequenced synthesizers. They’re in the background, but when the backbeat drops out at the end of the first verse the guitars suddenly come up front, creating a quick but effective moment of confusion. You’re left wondering where the downbeat went, only to have it gracefully delivered with the onset of Mars’ vocals. It’s brilliant rhythmic trickery, but it only makes up about 10 seconds of the five-minute song, which certainly speaks to the band’s devotion to detail.
“Love Like a Sunset” builds slowly and steadily, like one of the brainier compositions from David Bowie’s Low. The band recently curated a compilation CD for the Kitsune label, which included Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train,” from the Risky Business soundtrack. That song, with its measured minimalism and krautrock synths, firmly established the push-and-pull of one of the best (and somehow, most convincing) sex scenes of the ’80s, and it hints at what Phoenix are shooting for here.
Phoenix has called Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix its gloomiest record to date, saying it took several studios and a great deal of soul-searching to complete. Maybe something’s getting lost in translation, though, because even at their most lyrically melancholy, Mars’ allusions to stress-taxed romance (in “Countdown” and “Armistice”) sound positively jubilant. But Mars is a Frenchman, so perhaps he can’t be expected express himself in the same way that Brandon Flowers does—ways that, as it turns out, take more naturally to pop music.