Bringing back that effortless French cool in a way that only they can, the French outfit’s seventh is easily their best since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or, in the case of Phoenix, it makes creativity spring ever faster. Over lockdown, Phoenix were separated as lead singer Thomas Mars now lives in the United States, while his bandmates remain in Paris. They eschewed the notion of recording via Zoom, and instead, when lockdown restrictions were lifted, met up in person. The resulting album, Alpha Zula, was written in just three weeks.
Appropriately enough, for such a quintessentially French band, Alpha Zula was recorded in a deserted Louvre museum (with the art all hidden underneath white dust sheets). Whether it be the energy inspired by such an unusual recording location or simply the joy and release of meeting up and recording music again, the resulting album, Phoenix’s seventh, is easily their best record since the career highpoint of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
The hooks that Mars and company are so good at are exceptional on Alpha Zulu. The title track, which opens the album, has an infectious, if nonsense, refrain of “hey hey hey, woo-ha, singing Hallelujah” – inspired by a traumatic trans-Atlantic flight which Mars experienced, there’s a nervous tension infecting every bar, which proves to be an addictive beginning to the album.
That’s followed by Tonight, which already sounds like a classic Phoenix track. Joined by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend on vocals (the first time a Phoenix track has featured a vocal guest star) – just hearing Mars and Koenig swap lyrics is sure to bring a smile to anyone nostalgic for the indie-dance days of the late 2000s. It’s pure nostalgia, which, when it involves two bands this influential, is no bad thing at all.
While most of the album features that trademark Phoenix bounce, there are sadder moments too – the death of the band’s frequent producer Philippe Zdar, a man so intrinsically linked with the band that he was often described as their fifth member, hangs heavy. Album centrepiece Winter Solstice is downbeat and contemplative, with a post-pandemic lyrical subject (“it’s hard to connect, but the world’s unchained, and soon it’ll be public domain”), while closing track Identical – originally featured in Sophia Coppola’s film On The Rocks – sees Mars musing that “I’m losing my friend, I’m losing my grip”.
Despite this though, the overall impression of Alpha Zula is that of the band having a lot of fun. Season 2 begins with the phrase “giddy up, I’m bored” and soon settles into an irresistibly bouncy rhythm, while Artefact (no doubt inspired by the museum it was recorded in) seems to harness everything that made Phoenix great in the first place – just a great, slightly quirky, alt-pop song full of catchy little moments.
Naysayers may complain that that’s not that much new to see on Alpha Zulu – and it’s true that it can sometimes feel like Phoenix-by-numbers. All Eyes On Me employs the same stuttering nervous energy that the title track has, and nothing on the album quite hits the staggering heights that a 1901 or Lizstomania did. Yet these are high standards to strive to, and Alpha Zulu is certainly a top-tier Phoenix record, bringing back that effortless French cool in a way that only they can.