In a year when critics lavished praise on an album that featured the honest-to-god lyrics “I got a high school crush on a California girl, oh yeah,” perhaps it’s a mercy that after dozens of virtual spins, I am still happily incapable of extracting a single coherent lyrical thought from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Thomas Mars might as well actually be singing in French. The few complete sentences that do erupt from the kaleidoscopic euphoria of “1901” or “Lisztomania”—”It’s 20 seconds till the last call,” “I’ve been looking for something else,” “I’ll be anything you ask and more,” “This love’s for gentlemen only”—evaporate on contact with the band’s prismatic frisson of analog stadium-rock propulsion and synth-saturated digital elation, until Mars seems to be babbling in the giddy baby talk of young lovers or actual babies: “Do let do let do let jugulate do let do let do let” giving way to “You’re going hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.”
I have never been more grateful for an official, band-sanctioned online lyric sheet, and more completely bewildered by what it revealed. Is the chorus to “1901” really “Fold it/Fold it/Fold it/Fold it”? Not “Falling/Falling,” etc.? (How can you get 60 seconds into that song and do anything else but swoon?) The fuck is a meteor tower, and why is it overrated? How do you tease someone with underage? “The octagon logo had to rip it up”? And, seriously, jugulate? Total confusion has never been sexier. “Romantic joy, romantic confusion, romantic angst, romantic foolishness,” wrote Matt Perpetua of invaluable MP3 outpost Fluxblog, way ahead of the curve on Phoenix (Wolfgang is their fourth full-length) and most unrepentant wide-screen pop of their ilk. “It can be whatever we want it to be, as long as the romance is there, and oh, God, it is.”
It took dozens of artists crafting dozens of moments of sublime melancholy and menace to counterbalance the endless-summer joy Phoenix brought me in 2009. Neko Case’s heart- and home-rending gale-force moan of “What will make you believe me?” at the climax of “This Tornado Loves You.” The abrupt, terrifying barrage of maliciously farting horns that interrupt another of St. Vincent’s nightmarish orchestral reveries as she calmly chants, “H-E-L-P/Help me/Help me.” The-Dream’s exquisite, borderline-nonsensical lovesickness on “Right Side of My Brain.” The chilling moment on snarling mixtape kingpin Freddie Gibbs’s “Queen (Luv U 2 Death)” when his undying love erodes into homicidal rage. Drake’s “Successful,” the softest, saddest, eeriest, loneliest ode to fame and wealth and good-life excess ever written. Fever Ray, all of it, top to bottom, brrrrr. Phoenix alone served as the cheerfully delirious inverse to all that pain and fear and unease; here is the only band on Earth capable of selling Cadillacs to mortified Americans on the cusp of another Great Depression.
And so Wolfgang‘s luxurious pleasures only multiply the more cryptic Mars gets; he’s most articulate when fixating on a single word. “Farewell-well-well-well-well-well till you know me well”; “Rome, Rome, Rome, Rome, Rome, Rome, Rome, Rome.” And the single most dazzling, sumptuous musical moment of 2009 hinges on what, I suppose, is actually a pretty coherent lyrical thought: “Love Like a Sunset,” split into two halves, the first a moody and discordant power-ambient jam, the second an elegant piano-and-acoustic-guitar lullaby, the delicately unfolding transition between them as gorgeously heart-stopping a moment as any mere mortal could stand, at least in a year as mortally fraught as this one. Phoenix did not reflect the bleakness of the times, but the endless-sunshine optimism and willful naïveté necessary to survive them. Submit to their irrational, unashamed, inexhaustible exuberance. Like a high school crush on a California girl, oh yeah.