The difference between Phoenix’s debut, 2000’s United, and its tardy follow-up, Alphabetical, is illustrated by the respective album covers. United was a self-aware and unabashed celebration of all things artificial. The cover art features a girl’s toned arms stretched as high as they can go, hands planted firmly on a tacky stadium-style rendering of the French three-piece. If the camera were aimed a little lower, the poster would be on the receiving end of a metaphysical blowjob.
Contrast this with the stark black-and-white photos adorning the front of Alphabetical: a mixture of faux-candid shots of the band members and close-ups of the equipment used to record the album. The message is simple — Phoenix has recorded what it considers to be a sincere headphones record, just them and the studio minus the detached ’80s pastiche.
From the cokey backward cymbal roll that freezes over into the first track, it’s apparent that the band isn’t “too young” anymore, and that the drugs are starting to cause at least as much paranoia as pleasure (as evidenced on the amateurishly unhinged “I’m an Actor”). The production is open and icy, complementing the tense guitar and the purposefully awkward synth-blurts on “Run, Run, Run” and “If It’s Not With You,” creating the impression that the frequent vocal harmonies are computer-generated emulations of humanity.
None of this adds up to an altogether successful advancement of the band’s old sound. Ironically, the greatest moments on Alphabetical are the ones that echo the blatant plasticity of the last record. The tight, elastic disco bass on “Everything is Everything” turns a great pop song into pure angular sex. The non-committal lyrics that plague the album reach a vague ecstasy when vocalist Thomas Mars repeats, “Riding low, riding low, riding faster.” “Victim of the Crime” is a clutter of Top 10 cliches, from Beach Boys sleigh bells to a plucky Dr. Dre synth melody. It shows that Phoenix is best when creating sensual reinterpretations of what has come before it.