I Thought About This for a Long Time
Every time Phoenix releases an album, you're guaranteed a smattering of killer pop-songs. The only question is whether you'll get but a handful, like on their so-so second album, 2004's Alphabetical, or an albumful, like on their near-perfect third LP, 2006's It's Never Been Like That. Following up the latter, Phoenix have a lot to live up to; anything less than an album of 10 insidiously-melodic, wonderfully-summery slink-pop gems, and it's going to seem like a step back.
Perhaps self-consciously, Phoenix have, in authoring such a follow-up, taken a deliberate step back: collaborating with Philippe Zdar of French-house act Cassius. Zdar worked with Phoenix on their debut album, 2000's United, the most wildly varied and genuinely idiosyncratic disc of their career. Phoenix quietly introduced themselves to the world with two peerless pop-songs that'd find years-later fame ("Too Young" and "If I Ever Feel Better"), some authentic evocations of Californian '70s-AM-radio yacht-rock, sharp bursts of loud rock, and a nine-minute workout of robo-cowboy electro-kitsch, "Funky Squaredance."
Reunited with their United producer, Phoenix haven't done that much stylistic hopscotching; their latest LP reined-in enough to clock in at 9 songs, 37 minutes. But, then again, they're not a budding band still trying to find their feet, either. Here, each stylistic variation feels not like some act of youthful exuberance and/or unexpected happenstance, but a careful decision from a careerist outfit.
From the Hits to the Dabbles
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix kicks off how It's Never Been Like That left off. First there's "Lisztomania," their first single-of-the-year contender; a jam so vibrantly, joyously melodic that its nonsensical lyrics hardly put a scuff on its pure-pop sheen. It's followed up by track two, "1901," the album's first single, and second single-of-the-year contender. Hitching its wagon to a simple overdriven keyboard sound and a back/forth riff, it's an utterly glorious three minutes: almost instantly memorable, yet still enjoyable when played again-and-again. So far, so on fire.
After that, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix starts dabbling. There's "Fences," all limpid keytonal feyness, "Rome," a strangely bloodless, not-so-strangely overproduced voyage into the mid-tempo ballad, and this album's own attempt at a "Funky Squaredance": nearly eight-minutes of comedown, noise-blown, pseudo-shoegazery named "Love Like a Sunset," that evokes both plodding prog and the frosted melodramas of M83 in an awkward match.
In the end, it's kind of reminiscent of United, but not blessed with the same rosy glow (even if that's the glow of nostalgia and/or hindsight). If Phoenix had gone straight from that debut to this record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would probably feel more like a welcome joy. But following up It's Never Been Like That, it plays too much like a patchwork, and seems disappointing in the comparison.
Record Label: Louyaté
Release Date: 25 May 2009