Review Summary: Surely the high point of this band’s decade-long career.
Phoenix has been chugging along dutifully for years ever since their taste-making role in Lost in Translation’s soundtrack, but fame has continued to elude the French foursome. Lost in Translation wasn’t Garden State, and Phoenix certainly isn’t the Shins, but despite Phoenix’s ability to churn out irresistibly catchy pop singles, those same singles have never managed to translate into pop success. Maybe something was lost in translation over the Atlantic (sorry, I had to), but Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their 4th major label effort, offers more than enough quirky synth-rock to finally give the band a hit on American shores.
The one-two punch of first single “Lisztomania” and “1901” that opens the record is the kind of combo that could prevent the rest of the album from being heard. Both are bouncy slices of indie rock guaranteed to get feet tapping: “Lisztomania” rides a jittery beat and vocalist Thomas Mars’ oscillating vocals to a chorus perfectly memorable and perfectly simple, while “1901” mixes buzzing synths with a jangly chorus and a Mars’ echoing refrain of “fallin’” that begs to be sung along to.
Previous listeners of Phoenix will find little difference initially between Wolfgang and their 2006 work, It’s Never Been Like That. While most of Wolfgang retains Phoenix’s relentless energy and effervescent melodies, the album as a whole feels more fleshed out, more organic sounding than INBLT, which at times sounded mechanical and clashing. “Fences” switches between a down-tempo disco groove and Mars’ falsetto verses to a keyboard-heavy chorus with yet another on-the-money chorus, while on a song like “Lasso,” Mars sounds more focused and natural than ever before, his habit of over-enunciating lessened and his versatile range exploited nicely. Speaking of “Lasso,” not only does it have one of the best choruses on the record, the drums at the beginning always remind me of “Down With The Sickness.” Very odd.
Perhaps most importantly, Wolfgang comes off as a very vibrant, modern-sounding record. Songs like the “Love Like A Sunset” duo and “Big Sun” sound like the stereophonic equivalent of a rainbow, full-bodied compositions that embrace a Wall-of-Sound production style but maintain Phoenix’s dedication to keeping it relatively danceable, resulting in something fresh in the group’s rather tired oeuvre. “Love Like A Sunset,” in particular, is about as experimental as Phoenix are likely to get, the first part coming off as what a band like Explosions in the Sky might sound like with a more defined sense of rhythm and an interest in ‘80s pop while the second resolves all the tension in a potent wave of major-key harmonies.
“Rome” follows in much the same vein as “Love Like A Sunset,” matching a sparkling layer of sound and the album’s best lyrics together into Wolfgang’s most fully realized tune. The metaphor of Rome’s downfall with the end of a relationship paired with the shimmering cascade of guitar make the song an obvious highlight.
The only nagging problem with the record, and it’s one with Phoenix’s discography in general, is the lyrical content, which is more often than not nonsensical and incomprehensible. “Lisztomania” opens up with Mars yelping “so sentimental / not sentimental no! / romantic not disgusting yet / darling I’m down and lonely,” while the chorus cryptically continues “think less but see it grow . . . I’m not easily offended / it’s not hard to let it go / from a mess to the masses.” English not being their first language, though, it’s hard not to forgive the band and instead admire Mars’ frequently clever vocal stylings.
After the epic productions of “Rome” and “Big Sun,” the closing songs almost seem to pale in comparison. “Girlfriend” is an acceptable pop/rock ditty that, on its own, would be a well above-average song on any band’s record, but at the tail end of this one, brings nothing new to the table. Closer “Armistice” boasts some nifty drum work and another excellent chorus breakdown, but its abrupt ending and overall sameness seems like an ill-fitting conclusion to such a stunning album.
And stunning it is. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is surely the high point of this band’s decade-long career, a finely-crafted, tightly-performed collection of concise, vivid dance-rock that rarely misses a beat and shows Phoenix willing to grow beyond the structural boundaries they seemed to impose on themselves with It’s Never Been Like That. Who says France never gave us anything good?