Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
(V2 Records/Loyauté; 2009)
By Alan Baban | 18 May 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.