Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Nearly a decade ago, a slinky Versailles quartet burst onto the indie pop rock scene in inimitable French chic, embracing pure pop aesthetics with perfectly timed cymbals and a poignant, lightly accented voice. In 2009′s ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’, the fourth studio album from that same slick band, the occasional languidness of previous albums is gone, replaced by a musical crispness which only adds to their already remarkable sound.
In this album, Thomas Mars and the boys tackle relationships of all kinds: youthful, married, dying, vibrant, but all with some element of imperfection. However, it is a mark of their brand of synth pop goodness that all of these songs, despite being mostly about flawed relationships, sound relentlessly cheerful. The content usually does not correlate to the flavor of the music. But no one would complain; Phoenix makes it work effortlessly. The ambiguous lyrics exude poetic gems, sometimes so starkly beautiful that it is difficult to remember that English is not Phoenix’s mother tongue.
“1901″, a cheery single, talks about a relationship that has once again fallen into an all-too-familiar difficult patch, and how a miracle would not suffice to salvage it. “Fences”, almost Royksopp-esque in its casual stylishness, suggests a relationship smothered into awkward avoidance, and the couple’s desperate attempts (“wired and protected”) to keep it from falling apart. “Armistice” is its lyrical prologue; it speaks of perhaps the same couple, during their early days, recklessly ignoring the warnings (“octagon logos” and “semaphore messages”) to indulge in an ill-fated, rushed relationship, while the bass-laden “Lasso” hints at a neglected woman caught in the lonely void of a marriage (“Forever is a long long time/When you’ve lost your way”).
The understated “Rome”, Keane-like in its gorgeous vocals and delicate melodies, describes a youthful love, full of shared cigarettes and tropical sunsets, but destined to fall like its namesake empire, with one another as nothing more than “static silhouettes” in memory. The sunny “Countdown” wistfully reminisces about the nonchalance of those same youthful relationships, and how, in maturity, relationships expected to be true and everlasting end up, more often than not, everlastingly cruel. “Love Like a Sunset”, an epic, layered track, is the band’s musical finest; they seem to paint vivid scenes, alternating (depending on the listen) between either a dramatic sunset, or the “visible illusion” of the emotional scene contained in “Armistice”.
However, it is in “Lisztomania”, the other single from the album, that Phoenix perfects each of the shades and hues of pop bliss glimpsed throughout the album. Everything about it, from the subtle chords to the phrases that get stuck in your head for a very long time, to the sheer cheerfulness it infuses in every listen without fail, confirms that it is perhaps one of the best pop songs in years.
With this album, there’s two ways to listen: if it’s the music you prefer, Amadeus is a exhilarating 35-minute-long joyride full of ecstatic hooks and casual coolness; think Hot Hot Heat meets the Strokes. But if it’s the lyrics you prefer, ‘Amadeus’ is a thoughtful, elegiac musing of the nuances and subtleties of relationships (albeit with excellent musical accompaniment), a sort of Gallic Coldplay. In either case, Phoenix have produced an instantly likeable and immensely enjoyable album.
In their latest musical offering, Mars and company sound like they bought out the entire stock of Essence of Indie Pop; Amadeus is almost certainly the best pop album of 2009. Highly recommended.