And the award for Comeback of the Year goes to ...
No matter what else happens over the course of 2009, Phoenix have undoubtedly scored the Comeback of the Year.
Back in 2000, this little-known group of Parisian lounge-rockers released a fantastic little disc called United, and though decidedly laid-back in vibe, this synth-happy quartet (fronted by Thomas Mars) had stumbled upon a unique vein of mid-tempo propulsion, mixing keyboards with peppy drum beats and Mars' disaffected croon, resulting in minor pop masterpieces like the relentlessly optimistic bounce of "If I Ever Feel Better" and the giddy "Too Young". The latter track wound up getting featured in the movie Lost in Translation, and by all means, it seemed like Phoenix were going to be pop's "next big thing".
Unfortunately, it's hard to be the "next big thing" when each of your subsequent albums begin collapsing under the weight of their own style. Though 2004's Alphabetical still featured some stunning moments (particularly the storming opener "Everything is Everything"), the group hadn't really found a way to advance their sound, and, as such, Alphabetical felt a bit colder and distant than United did. They quickly followed that album with the horrid 2006 effort It's Never Been Like That, which failed to garner much attention at all, largely due to the fact that the began stopped writing actual songs and instead released aural photocopies of "the Phoenix sound". Suddenly, it seemed like the only thing Phoenix was going to be famous for was having a frontman that was the father of Sophia Coppola's child.
So what a sigh of relief it is to hear Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix all the way through. Not only has the band managed to capture the vibrant energy that made United such a joy to listen to, but for the first time in a long time, it feels like Phoenix are actually ready to stick to their guns by sticking their necks out in public, utilizing all of the promotional mediums that they can to make sure everyone hears this album they're extremely proud of, instead of just getting lucky and having one of their songs "discovered" on a soundtrack somewhere. On February 23rd of this year, people were invited to the Phoenix website to get an MP3 of lead single "1901", and suddenly the band that everyone forgot about was on the forefront of everyone's mind. The group immediately followed this with a triumphant appearance on Saturday Night Live, and now -- after having Wolfgang available through digital retailers for almost a month -- we see the cycle complete with the physical release of their first new album in three years.
Effortlessly capturing that late-night club cool that was notably absent from their last two discs, Wolfgang feels like a far more considered record than anything the band has done so far. Opening with the buoyant "Lisztomania" (arguably the best pop song ever written about a Ken Russell film), Mars makes hesitant statements about relationships that exist out of necessity than real romance ("ending this love for gentlemen only", he intones), all while plunky key tones dance around him, Phoenix's warm sound as full-bodied as ever. The stunning "1901" -- with its stop-start guitar lurch and positively soaring chorus -- might even be their finest song to date.
Yet as easy as it would be to embrace Wolfgang simply because the band has found their voice again (as some of us critics already have), none of this would matter if the band didn't have the songs to back it up -- and, amazingly, they do. Though "Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)" is the weakest track on the album by far (read: not bad, just the most forgettable), every other song bristles with a vibrancy and energy all its own. The tremolo synth breakdown on "Rome", for example, serves as the album's true climax, where Mars drops out, the drums fire up, and the band sits back, takes a drag, and watches as the sweaty masses before them dance in sheer unbridled ecstasy.
There are lot of moments like that on Wolfgang, wherein the band stops everything to focus solely on one instrument, almost as a way of restarting the song mid-way through, lest it get boring. They pull this trick on "Girlfriend" (where things drop out just for the strummy electric riffs to build upon themselves), "Fences" (where Mars brings in his acoustic for a few blissful moments), and the epic two-part number "Love Like a Sunset", where -- after building layers upon layers of synths like an M83 song -- everything blows away and is replaced by a simple two-chord guitar riff, the seven-minute running time of both pieces climaxing with about only 90 seconds of lyrics. Simply put, the band has learned how to build songs to proper climaxes now, and boy are they happy to show off that newfound skill.
There are just so many little gems to be found scaling all over Wolfgang ("Fences", for example, is arguably the sexiest song the band has ever done), all given proper weight by Mars' eternally lovelorn lyrics, often about fixing, building, or (in the case of the harpsichord-laden "Armistice") compromising your way through a relationship. Mars cannot seem to find happiness wherever he goes, and when we get to "Lasso" and its central query of "Who ya runnin' to / Could you go run to me?", it almost deliberately echoes Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend", wherein His Royal Badness (as Camille) asked "Would you run to me if somebody hurt you / Even if that somebody was me?" Even as Prince proved to be an unquestioned expert on sexual politics, Thomas Mars is slowly showing us his mastery of the psychology of the courtship.
It's fitting, then, that when Phoenix initially formed in 1999, the band would got their start by playing drunken Prince covers at karaoke bars before finally discovering their own sound. With Wolfgang, they've finally come into their own, releasing the strongest disc of their career without compromising a thing. Sure, it'd be easy to stonewall this album for being almost too lightweight and feel-good, but really -- aside from Max Tundra's Parallax Error Beheads You -- it's unlikely you're going to find an album of equal effortless pop fun this year. Welcome back, Phoenix; we've been waiting for you.