2020 needed an album like Friend Ship. Part of an emerging wave of artwork informed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the seventh album from Kiwi sextet, the Phoenix Foundation takes sweet solace in the human condition in all its complexities and mundanities. As its title suggests, it is a record about making and maintaining connections in a time of increasing fracture and isolation. And while it may not exactly be optimistic, it ultimately is hopeful and, crucially, warm-hearted.
The Phoenix Foundation have always been eclectic and what one might fondly call “quirky”. Their last couple albums took a decided turn toward the esoteric and psychedelic while keeping an eye on their pop smarts. Friend Ship is, in the band’s own words, a “more focused” effort, each song acting as its own carefully-crafted vignette. The result is their most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo. Each of the ten songs commands attention and repeated listening in its own right. There are no standouts because they are all standouts.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Friend Ship is the band’s ability to belie some heady subject matter with their spacious yet detailed pop arrangements. “Hounds of Hell”, for example, is quite literally about togetherness at the end of the world. Samuel Flynn Scott, one of the band’s two lyricists/vocalists, assures a loved one, “You won’t be alone / When the sunlight turns to fire.” The music is stately, swirling, harpsichord-led chamber pop. On “Miserable Meal”, co-leader Luke Buda describes domestic life as being “on board the SS Shithole“. The accompaniment, though, buoyed by New Zealand Symphony Orchestra strings and mariachi horns exudes acceptance and ease, if not outright cheerfulness.
A couple of other Buda-fronted tracks find him reflecting on the past, be it either his entire life up to that point or a single night. On the deeply personal “Former Glory”, he details his boyhood as an Eastern Bloc immigrant, from “lining up for flour” in his homeland to “learning to talk again” and dealing with a bully in his new country and eventually “start[ing] a band with my best friends”. When Buda reaches the takeaway, “It ain’t easy to find your way, for the immigrant”, it carries the weight of experience. “Decision Dollars” is as accurate, cathartic, and empathetic as a morning-after hangover anthem could be. “We could have taken it easy,” he muses. “Imagine how that would feel.” The desire to turn back time should ring true to anyone who has woken up after killing the pain a bit too overzealously.
Musically, Friend Ship is characteristically diverse. “Landline” celebrates the power of old-school connection via some sparkling disco-pop, “My Kitchen Rules” is terse new wave, while the astral-minded “Transit of Venus” takes a plangent, dream pop route. The Phoenix Foundation are a lot less scrappy than they were in their early days, and some fans might wish the album featured more of the raised-eyebrow, psychedelic rock of opener “Guru”.
However, lest Friend Ship, with its Day-Glo 1980s themed artwork, seem too slight or easygoing, two heartbreaking, jaw-dropping stunners anchor the album. “Tranquility” is almost unbearably melancholic, more an impression than a song, with Buda and Tiny Ruins’ Hollie Fullbrook lamenting a time “before the age of insanity / Got its grip on me / And the rest of the world”. On the naked, similarly, beautiful “Trem Sketch”, Scott closes the album with the realization that “Here comes that sinking feeling / That I’m wrong” and a pledge that “I’ll be anyone that comes to mind” to save a relationship.
It is a fitting ending because what makes Friend Ship so powerful is the grace with which it makes the case that there is something worth saving.