Music

The Not Even Remotely Cruel Summer Jams of French Pop Sensations Phoenix

by

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