Phoenix has technically been around since the early 1990s, when Thomas Mars started a garage band with schoolmates Chris Mazzalai and Deck D’arcy. They began charting in 2001 with United, and over two decades have amassed a discography of innovative indie-pop, existing somewhere on the fringes of the mainstream while developing a dedicated following. Now they’ve arrived in clearly favored territory as mature, respected musicians–for the last two years they were given a room in the legendary, empty Louvre museum as “resident artists”, where they recorded this record, Alpha Zulu.
Alpha Zulu is an electronic record, taking inspiration from the recently deceased French dance producer Phillipe Zdar. Given the band’s dance-inspired tendencies and influences this isn’t all that strange. Phoenix has historically been masterful at turning basically electronic songs into rock and roll hits–they meld the two genres brilliantly. Unfortunately this isn’t the case with Alpha Zulu. In interviews they’ve said this record is particularly weird, which should set expectations high–Phoenix is a deceptively weird band, even on hits like “1901”, where unexpected rhythmic choices and cryptic, floating lyrical lines give the song its lift. This record has little of that lift–here, weird just means less resonant.
A big part of the band’s charm comes from Mars, a fantastically inventive vocalist with a shy-kid persona. He tries to puncture that image on Alpha Zulu with a few hesitant stabs at dangerousness, attempts that fall flat. On “All Eyes On Me” there’s an auto-tuned intro and some whoops and hollers before he reminds us that he’s “not that innocent” over a skittering dance track. Similar whoops and hollers also show up on the title track as part of a vaguely apocalyptic statement. Meanwhile, other tracks feel about as dangerous as cotton candy. “Tonight”, the collaboration with Ezra Koenig, is a glittery pop anthem, very much in line with anything by Vampire Weekend. “Season 2” has a kind of sweetness verging on saccharine, and features the confusingly bouncy opening line “Giddy-up I’m bored”. They left me wanting something more, something I know Phoenix is capable of.
Their lyrics are usually ambiguous because of their non-native English. Originally considered a bug, they’ve embraced it as a feature of their special francophone universe, where things are “a little off”. This can allow them to convey powerful emotions without needing to explicitly spell them out. Watching videos of Phoenix concerts, you get the impression that fans are screaming the approximate sounds of lyrics, not necessarily actual English. As a band they’ve been clear that they aren’t political, that there’s a joyful remove they try to create with their music, and Alpha Zulu does manage this. It sounds danceable live, its saving grace. As an escapist album it does the job; the synth swells are big, the drums are often loud, and the melodies are super catchy, which I noted while singing in the shower.
The record raises questions about what they’re actually trying to do. Clearly it’s an electronic tribute to their friend Phillipe, and a dance album, and a melodic pop record. And from a band known for its eclecticism, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they would take a more diverse approach. But from the first couple singles, there was a sort of clash between the high-art image they were projecting and the pretty straightforward pop that was on offer. After hearing the whole record those questions stuck with me.
Order Alpha Zulu by Phoenix HERE
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