Ahh, the hipster lifestyle album. It’s a valuable tool in the arsenal, and no discerning music fan should be without a few of them. At its best the genre can boast such classics as Air’s Moon Safari and Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, but ultimately it’s an empty endeavor, its sheer ephemerality being its downfall. It’s not music to be treasured for a lifetime (except in its best examples such as the previously stated), it’s music for the moment, for the here and now, and what works in one setting, in one year, will most certainly not do in the next year or circumstance. It is in this context, that France’s Phoenix releases their sophomore effort, Alphabetical.
Forming in the suburbs of Paris, Phoenix seems to have always been lucky. Early name-dropping from Daft Punk (at the height of their Discovery fame), and a spot as the backing band for Air, propelled Phoenix into the spotlight. Savvy listeners searching for more of the electronic, dance-oriented, light-rock French sound of the late ‘90s were desperate for more of the same. Unfortunately there just wasn’t a lot of quality music out there, outside of the big names (Cassius, Daft Punk, Air, Dmitri From Paris). But Phoenix’s debut was close enough, and it was propelled by the best song Phoenix will ever record, the absolutely giddy “Too Young”. “Too Young” is the kind of song good enough to make you forgive the fact that the rest of the LP was an uneven mish-mash of simple guitar pop, with touches of overly-arranged prog rock. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good singles band.
So it comes with some consternation that Phoenix has waited four years to release their follow up. Perhaps they’ve retooled, refined their sound, and perfected their craft. Sadly, this is not the case. Phoenix has created an album that is easy to enjoy whilst listening, but desperately hard to love, and impossible to remember. I find it utterly unfathomable that Alphabetical could ever become a treasured record for anybody, and if an album has no potential for that, than it is either an exercise in studied nonchalance, or a failure. And while I find Phoenix likeable and completely enjoyable, there seems to be no blood spilt in the making of this LP. No sweat in the music, no soul in the sound.
Alphabetical opens with its best song, “Everything Is Everything”, and it’s a perfect microcosm of the entire disc: tight, no-hair-out-of-place production; chugging, staccato acoustic guitars; and a breezy chorus alternating with forgettable verses. It’s a good song, just as virtually every song on Alphabetical is “good”. But good doesn’t win over the music-space of consumers with infinite choices. One thing that can be said for the age of file-sharing is that the cream most definitely rises, because there is no need to settle for mediocrity.
There is one truly awful song, amongst all the “good” on Alphabetical, the regrettable “I’m an Actor”. Opening with Phoenix’s ubiquitous staccato guitar rhythms, but adding a menacing vibe to them, lead vocalist Chris Mars sings, “I’m an actor / And I’m doin’ well / And I want things to be done by someone / Who’s taking care of me”. Meanwhile, The Wall-like backing vocals conjure up a completely self-conscious air of Roger Waters-inspired “terror” and paranoia. The song’s unbelievably sophomoric writing has no place on the LP, and it’s simply incredible that Phoenix left it on the album. It gives the impression of desperation, as if Phoenix was really struggling to fill out the disc. And after four years, that’s a sign of a complete lack of inspiration.
Things get better later on, with the sexy “If It’s Not With You”, and the peppy, pop bounce of “Holdin’ On Together”, the latter of which sports the closest comparison to “Too Young” in style and candor, but even this comes off as Phoenix going through the motions, it’s just that when you’re going through motions as good as those in “Too Young” it’s not difficult to come up with something handsome.
I don’t dislike Phoenix; they’re a band that is easy to root for. They’re nice boys, who write nice songs, and have all the ingredients that you would want in a band of their style. But they just don’t seem to care enough about their own music to inspire themselves, let alone their listeners.