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Review: Phoenix Evoke Italian Summers and Late Night Romance on the Exceptional Ti Amo

Without making a big thing of it, the French rock band Phoenix has resisted modern fame’s mania for disclosure, instead cultivating an affable inscrutability and consuming devotion to the studio album. They’ve been many things to many people: a rarified Franz Ferdinand, a smarter Strokes, Vampire Weekend with ennui, Spoon for Francophiles. Only slowly did it dawn on us that they’ve always just been Phoenix—so cunning has been their capacity to absorb colors and styles into their unvarying poise, their faint detachment and interior artifice, their seemingly boundless faculty to reflect the richness of life in sound.

Though Phoenix drench their songs in references both period and modern, by now the style strikes us before the citations: yard upon yard of billowy synthesizer sparkling like ombré broadcloth, stitched into comely silhouettes by ticking funk guitars and embroidered with dreamy post-punk heraldry. Each song is coordinated in its own little fashion show, with hook after stylish hook trotted out on the runway amid exploding flashbulbs. For most of Phoenix’s career, which reached its commercial peak with 2009’s gold-selling, Grammy winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the sound was dapper-casual, urbanely rumpled yet fastidiously buttoned. But, on 2013’s Bankrupt!, Phoenix didn’t just come unbuttoned; songs like the frantic “S.O.S. in Bel Air” blew the buttons right off, creasing with new musical wrinkles, from sugary Asian pop to galumphing synth-prog.

Based on the uncontainable energies unleashed on Bankrupt!, it was hard to guess which way Phoenix would go next. One could imagine them slipping back into a less floridly expansive register, or proceeding in the straightforward direction of songs like “Entertainment” or “Don’t.” But no one probably guessed that Phoenix would spend the next four years fashioning an entire album in the manner of “Drakkar Noir,” a knowingly lightweight bit of ocean-liner soft rock in which singer Thomas Mars rattles off tempting nonsense about eighties cologne and Scandinavian leather—let alone that those frothy, decadent calories could nourish Phoenix’s most charming album yet, one whose unremitting pleasure principle belies its subtle emotional intelligence, and wise naïveté.

The most striking parts of “Drakkar Noir” were those sudden, fountaining arpeggios, fizzing and gushing like champagne towers, as if the music just couldn’t help effusing over its own lusciousness. The effect recurs frequently on Ti Amo, starting with opener “J-Boy,” where a divebombing bassline explodes with a moist gasp and turns out to be full of rainbows, spray tan, and talk-sung jump-rope rhymes. You may have heard mutterings of dark, dystopian sci-fi undercurrents, and there are a few lyrics on “J-Boy” along those lines, but if you really perceive anything depressing in these mouthwatering synth tones and kissy vocal lines, please try to take care of yourself.

Ti Amo is a big, juicy starburst of romantic synth-pop and disco, redolent of Italian summers, flickering like random snippets of Fellini on an improvised beach-towel screen. It suggests nothing more sinister than a roller-skating date; the darkest thing about it is that, being recorded in a Parisian opera house turned tech incubator, it reminds us that everything old and beautiful is now fated to become a tech incubator. Mostly, it’s like seeing how many expensive European candies you can fit in your mouth at once, savoring bright layers of contrasting flavors: artisanal pralines and pastel pistachios, pink scoops of sorbet and yellow gelato. I’m not really being rhetorical—this is an album with songs named things like “Tuttifrutti” and “Fior Di Latte.”

The thin, expressive enigma of Mars’s voice, always so coolly at odds with the excitation surrounding it, is treated in a more overtly dance-pop way than on prior records. It’s ever so gently flanged on “J-Boy” and slipped into a shivering loop beside an almost subliminal rave siren in the title track. With slightly different accompaniment, the vocal line of “Fior Di Latte,” an ingeniously springy meet-cute of melody and phrasing, would fit easily on contemporary pop playlists, like something a fifteen-year-old YouTube star would slay with in The Voice blind auditions, garnished with a perfectly off-kilter touch of UB40 on the chorus.

The radiophonic vocal treatments draw out the ineffable, intimate remove already inherent in Mars’s voice, which transmits a persona accountable for both the ardor and the limits of Phoenix fandom. Mars, along with three more cool Versailles dads (bassist Deck d’Arcy and guitarists Chris Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz), is a mainstream rock star for connoisseurs and aesthetes. Only two of Phoenix’s members have Wikipedia pages, Brancowitz mainly because he was in an early band with the Daft Punk guys. Mars’s is seven lines long and gets challenged for notability, which seems both crazy and unsurprising, for someone wont to marshal polylingual love notes and confection tasting menus into ambiguous and profound album-length concepts.

In truth, I don’t care what Phoenix songs say as long as they say it in a certain way. (Is there a line funnier, stranger, and more evocative—the classic Phoenix trifecta—than “When it’s candlelight I see I go insane,” from Wolfgang’s “Rome”?) The lyrical texture is indispensable in creating the sense of an inaccessible core, even in Phoenix’s most open-hearted songs, that keeps us leaning in. The lines can seem plain enough taken one at a time, but, loosely strung together, they get very cagey. This is partly because you’re never quite sure what they’re about, though it all sounds wonderful, as with the resonant pairing of “No Picasso, Michelangelo” and “No more coral on the atoll” on “J-Boy.” The oddly turned phrases sometimes sound like found poetry, other times like someone downplaying his English facility to keep you off balance and emotionally pliable. When Mars sings, “No one’s gonna get to you,” on “Fleur Di Lys,” he might address himself as much as the record’s elusive object of desire.

Phoenix is a band built on values that last, like craft, musicianship, meticulousness, and ambition. They improve with age because their appeal was never predicated on youth’s rebellion against or grasp for a persona. Instead of wanton exploration, Phoenix has always ground it out in the studio for years at a time, growing their arrangements and albums into living, breathing things. Instead of a building a persona, they’ve pared away presence from everything but the music, leaving it as a blank, booming amplifier for our projections.

It’s hard to overstate how exceptional Ti Amo is: every song is complete in its own way, and while there’s perhaps the slightest softening of focus near the end, it never starts to coast on its sultry aesthetic. The band’s effort and discernment are present in each song; there’s not a single track that doesn’t seem likely to spend time as my favorite. Sure, “J-Boy” and “Ti Amo” come on strong, but what about the crush-worthy “Lovelife,” not the only track here balmed by latter-day Beach Boys? What about the flirty back-sass of “Tuttifrutti,” the will-they-won’t-they thing between the guitar and vocal line of “Goodbye Soleil”? What about “Telefono,” a mutedly joyful valediction, sailing off into a motel painting of a sunset? And who knows where they’ll come out on the other side? After all, the point of the phoenix isn’t just that it keeps coming back, but that it returns always as its essential self, a blazing idea surviving transformation after transformation.