Dec 13, 2022
By Michelle Dalarossa
More than 25 years after forming, French quartet Phoenix continues to hold their own as an indie-pop heavyweight on the sleek and effervescent Alpha Zulu. Their seventh studio album comes five years after 2017’s dreamy Ti Amo, delivering a tight and cohesive addition to their legacy of polished 10-track records. In true Phoenix style, the group recorded the album in an empty Parisian art museum during the pandemic, fitting for a band that co-opted Mozart’s name for an album title and that sets their shows with backdrops of the Palace of Versaille. But on Alpha Zulu, this flair for grandiosity largely ends there, replaced instead with gauzy synth-pop and carbonated ’80s electronica.
It’s a sound that Phoenix has played with in the past, but unlike the tinny, electronic currents of 2013’s Bankrupt! or the soft, floating synths of Ti Amo, Alpha Zulu’s computerized soundscape is bubblier and more staccato, a little spikier and a little more angular. On “The Only One,” an ecosystem of synths drives its percussive intro, and the following track, “After Midnight,” sees a crunchy, New Order-esque backing track melt seamlessly into glossy electric guitars and a jittery burst of keyboards.
In this way, Alpha Zulu sees Phoenix stretching its sonic borders. At its core, though, the album is still very much a Phoenix album; its heavier electronica is just another vessel for the same snappy hooks, weightless nostalgia, and indie-rock roots they’ve come to be known for. Just look at “Tonight” (which features Ezra Koenig), one of the record’s lead singles that harkens back to the late-aughts with its sunny guitars, forceful drums, and of course, Vampire Weekend’s frontman. “Artefact” is another track that leans into pure alt-rock and sounds classically Phoenix, complete with a lilting chorus and zippy harpsichord.
While the album doesn’t venture too far from glossy, mid-tempo numbers, it does take a few turns for the moodier with title track “Alpha Zulu” and the overcast “All Eyes On Me.” However, these attempts at an edgier sound come off as gimmicky from a band that’s usually silky-smooth and emotive, especially with interjections like “Woo ha!” and lyrics like “I’m not that innocent.” This aloofness seems further out of place with the album’s thematic elements, which hint at relational woes and disillusionment. There’s a constant sense of uncertainty and self-questioning in the record’s fragmentary lyrics that sound like one-sided arguments, from “Can I be the only one/Giving hugs and getting none?” to “Is there anybody else?/Is there anyone who cares?”
Despite lyrics that seesaw between melancholy and wistful, there’s an airy rapture to the band’s melodies that makes them consistently infectious, a quality that, along with Thomas Mars’ balmy vocals, buoys the album into sonic optimism and vitality. These qualities are the threads that run through Phoenix’s extensive opus and part of what makes the group as beloved as they are. Alpha Zulu proves that while they may play with novel sounds and textures, Phoenix are in no danger of losing their melodic instincts and effortless indie-pop sensibilities. (www.wearephoenix.com)
Author rating: 8/10
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