When we last heard from French synth-poppers Phoenix, they were exploring their European roots via Italo disco on Ti Amo. Lead single “J-Boy” was meant to illustrate the band’s purest emotions with regard to a romanticized vision of Italy, and it was a brief breath of fresh air after the band’s burnt out sound on Bankrupt! back in 2013.
Of course, the rest of the album wasn’t as refreshing. Typified by darker undertones, Ti Amo didn’t possess the organic feel of the band’s most celebrated work Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. That 2009 apex seems to be the direction the band wants to return to on their seventh album, Alpha Zulu.
Right off the bat we’re thrust into a time machine, with a “whoo – HA” and an exaggerated “Hallelujah” steeped in a deep and funky synth. Thomas Mars is still a master at harmonizing with those synth beats, even if the sentimentality is a little too dense and uninspired. Alpha Zulu is filled to the brim with this kind of simplicity; it’s a throwback to their heydays and it’s deftly retrograde.
However, there’s an over-abundance of nostalgia dripping from every orifice of Alpha Zulu, from the tender “My Elixir” which sounds recorded on a neon pink MacBook with Pro Tools, to the manufactured “indie” sound of “Aretefact”. Phoenix make it look easy to replicate that sound, even if they don’t give a good reason why.
Hooks are aplenty though – the irresistibly boppy “Tonight” lingers like a dangling carrot, healthy but kind of basic once it catches on. The phoned-in Ezra Koenig feature is a nice bro-ment, emboldened by the likelihood that these two titans of 2000s indie rock recorded this in salmon shorts while drinking White Claws.
Recorded in an empty museum – Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris to be specific – the band intended to gain inspiration from the emptiness and art for Alpha Zulu. In that intention, it is a success, as heard on “All Eyes on Me” where Mars informs us “All eyes on me / Peel slowly and see / Tristan is broke / Selling his Van Gogh.” It’s not nearly as powerfully painful as “Season 2”’s word choice, “Giddy-up, I’m bored and torn / Don’t wanna want to / Attaboy, I’m sure,” but it is what it is.
There’s an outlier in “Identical” though. Alpha Zulu benefits from its simplicity and directness, but its closing song is a messy affair that ends the album on somewhat of a sour moment. It’s taken from the soundtrack to On the Rocks, the film directed by Mars’ wife Sofia Coppola, only here it’s drawn out longer for an unknown reason.
The band’s penchant for making syrupy throwbacks is never going to leave them, though they’ve clearly abandoned that “rock” sound that helped get them acclaim with It’s Never Been Like That. Now they rely heavily on automation, but in doing so remove any form of excitement or wonder. It all feels a little too premeditated, sucking the energy out before things get moving.
The same can be said about their last two albums, and after a five year absence Phoenix return with nothing actually new. This is a batch of super simple songs, with super simple melodies, and super simple lyricism. At this point in their career it seems like there isn’t much else to expect from them.