The Not Even Remotely Cruel Summer Jams of French Pop Sensations Phoenix
As with the Pulitzer Prize, an esteemed and inviolable committee—a slightly larger one, in this case, as it comprises the entire American public—convenes annually to bestow glory upon the Official Song of the Summer. But if no candidate worthy of our praise presents itself in the year, we can deign not to give out the award at all. A dick move, sure, but sometimes, it's the right one. We're actually way stingier than those Pulitzer folks: Rihanna's "Umbrella" enjoyed a resounding, unanimous victory in 2007, but last summer, with apologies to Lil Wayne and (fewer apologies) to Katy Perry, consensus was less attainable.
I mention this because Phoenix, a gang of nonchalantly exuberant maximalist-pop Frenchmen, have now submitted, for committee review, their fourth record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a nine-song affair with, coincidentally, nine viable Official Song of the Summer candidates. This is gorgeous weather, summer vacation, and ice-cream-truck proliferation incarnate, a rare and invaluable quality we sensed long before our weather was remotely gorgeous, back when our frigid city's Bomb Pop availability was woefully inadequate.
First, in the miserable depths of February, came the band-sanctioned online premiere of "1901," a sweet, dainty guitar melody rudely punctuated by cheerfully farting synth blasts, the drums lithe and propulsive underneath, a tableau so warm and sunny and radiant that it felt like a cruel mirage. In early April, they played it on Saturday Night Live, alongside "Lisztomania," an even more delirious and infectious pure-pop supernova: The Wolfgang leadoff track now soundtracks a YouTube clip of Brat Pack luminaries dancing in The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, etc. A perfect fit. And just a few hours after SNL, Sunday morning dawned and spring finally, definitively arrived, warm and sunny and radiant. Everyone in New York City was camped out in a nearby park by noon. (OK, by 2 p.m.) Suddenly, the mirage was real. Couldn't have been a coincidence.
Twenty-odd spins through Wolfgang later, that joyous seasonal-affective feeling still resonates, manifest in every fiery burst of organic stadium-rock grandeur that bursts forth from the electronics-heavy analogue bubble bath. And I hardly mind that even after such frequent submersion, I still have no idea what singer Thomas Mars is talking about, his elegant yelp fluid and furtive, his repetition-heavy lyrics cryptic without ever remotely evoking actual crypts. Still can't decide if that line in the chorus to "Lisztomania" is "like a rhino" or "like a riot, oh!" Still ignoring all the gnomic, possibly free-associative utterances that surround it, and simply fixating on the way he sings the word "discourage," a dizzying, dazzling slide upward on the third syllable, as if it were the most desirable word in the English language.
Elsewhere, he does that thing you do when you're a kid, where you repeat one word incessantly until it loses all meaning and starts to sound foreign and strange. The lovestruck "Girlfriend" offers, "Eh well well well well well well well, do you know me well?" The chorus of "Big Sun" goes "We're sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick for the big sun." On "Rome," he reprises a specific tic—a quick, plaintive, upward-spiraling howl of "fall fall fall"—from the band's last album, 2006's grittier, less bombastic It's Never Been Like That; for this new song's climax, the farting synths now even more apocalyptic and disruptive, he simply moans, "Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome," etc., 24 times in all. The rare complete thought that sinks in for me has, like the "discourage" thing, a confusing dissonance, profound unhappiness conveyed in the cheeriest manner possible: As "Big Sun" works up its own lather, Mars repeatedly shouts, "True/'True and everlasting' didn't last that long/We're lonesome, we're lonesome, yeeeeaaaaaaaah!"
Wolfgang's one completely blatant, sentimental, un-cryptic moment has, in fact, very few lyrics at all—"Love Like a Sunset," split into two parts, the first a buzzing, burping, ambient wash that begins softly and delicately, but grows angrier, louder, and more insistent, concussive drums intruding and goading it into a cacophonic frenzy that abruptly stops dead in its tracks, hums with broken-fever relief for a few seconds, and then, boom, part two: romantic acoustic guitar, throbbing piano, and Technicolor keyboard drones that do indeed evoke love and/or a sunset, with a few sweet nothings from Mars thrown in to hammer home the melodrama. It's incredibly cheesy and unspeakably powerful. As a (slightly) edgier, more experimental feint, it breaks up the exhausting flow of Wolfgang's relentlessly infectious bubblegum nicely, but the fact that it's the record's least conventional Official Song of the Summer candidate perhaps makes it the strongest. The question, really, isn't so much whether it could capably soundtrack our imminent summer, but whether we're capable of having a summer worthy of it.
Phoenix play the Music Hall of Williamsburg June 18 and Terminal 5 June 19
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