Phoenix’s left turn on their excellent 2006 album, It’s Never Been Like That, which found the French foursome morphing from a less ambient version of Air into a band that out-Stroked the Strokes, was unpredictable, but not all that outlandish. Phoenix, even when they were at their most Air-ripping height (on their 2004 sophomore album, Alphabetical), could still bring the goods when shocked out of their sound-sculpting (especially on single “Everything Is Everything”). But it was still puzzling: How could a band that floated on the fringe of indie rock for more than a minute drop an album that is in the running for the defining new-new-wave opus?
With the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album that takes the easy hooks and brittle two-guitar attack that Phoenix perfected on It’s Never and somehow improves on them, Phoenix finally prove they had the chops to create not one career-defining album but two.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix opens with two monster singles, “Lisztomania,” a glittery anthem that manufactures a sense that you’re in for greatness and an immense motion that gets more urgent as the song progresses, and “1901,” a synth-washed heartfelt ode from frontman Thomas Mars about falling in love. “Lisztomania” and “1901” are both reverential toward the new-pop songs that used to light up radio dials in the ‘80s (think Peter Gabriel crossed with Hall and Oates’ production at its most icy), but both have a scent of freshness that isn’t evident on similar singles. Both “Lisztomania” and “1901” should figure heavily in the remix culture (“1901” already is to a degree) and year-end lists for tracks of the year.
Wolfgang understandably falls off a bit after its opening, but “Fences,” a slithering, seductive disco, introduces the cooler vibe of the album before “Love Like a Sunset Part I,” a teen movie-ready instrumental, climaxes repeatedly over its (slightly too long) five and a half minutes. In the album’s the latter half, things pick up again, with a run of songs that all could be decent singles on their own. “Lasso” is the most rewarding, building its rushing choruses around Mars’ metaphorical comparisons of a relationship to a lasso. Closer “Armistice” borrows regal synths from Vampire Weekend (another band bent up on the ‘80s) but wraps them in a pounding disco beat, ending the album on a note almost as high as it began.
It was almost too easy to write Phoenix off as Air-wannabes or the French Strokes back when they lacked anything besides one great single and the right couture choices (leather jackets and sunglasses) to make them stars. But with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix take the mantle of the best band amongst their peers, pulling off what the Strokes, the Hives, Jet, and any other band that dons leather and pilfers riffs and styles have largely been unable to match: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix showcases a band that has only gotten better with each album.