On new album, Alpha Zulu, Phoenix refine their craft while expanding the band’s ambition. This latest batch of tracks is more succinct than the sprawl of a Bankrupt! but retains the sense of adventure that hallmarks the band’s discography. Recorded at the Louvre, Alpha Zulu exhibits Phoenix’s desire to grow bigger and bolder even as they take stock of the past.
Phoenix have always inhabited a space somewhere between the accessible pockets of indie music and the excesses of pop notoriety. They flirted closer than ever to stardom on the hit-laden Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, for which they earned a Grammy. But the band seem to revel in that half space; misfits with a taste for glamour, incorporating disco and pop into their kaleidoscopic indie vision.
On Alpha Zulu, Phoenix’s potent transitions make their material consistently rewarding. The title track, for example, truly comes into its own as it morphs into different guises. Tonight sonically lies somewhere between Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Ti Amo. Featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, the track has the wide-eyed playfulness that marked Phoenix and Vampire Weekend’s first records. Lead singer Mars and Koenig dovetail joyfully on the peppy duet.
Though much of the material is tightly written, Phoenix are never afraid to approach maximalism on Alpha Zulu. You get the feeling the band are truly fond of their own material as they adorn tracks like After Midnight lovingly with myriad sonic decorations. Giorgio Moroder inspired synths feature heavily, supplying the 80s futuristic glitz French contemporaries Daft Punk employed on Random Access Memories. The production is clean and sharp but also moody, evoking late night drives in the city.
Thematically, the record finds Phoenix looking back wistfully on lost youth. The Only One humorously captures middle-aged disconnect with “the times” and nostalgia for a purer past: “Emoticons / Sending faces in polygons / Here’s another wish instead / Ah, with a candle light a cigarette”. There is a sincerity, though, with which Mars implores, “resurrect us all, I wanna be forever young” at the beginning of the song. The lyrics speak to the album’s cover art, too, which takes the 1478 painting “Madonna col Bambino mediante otto angeli” by Sandro Botticelli and gives it a digitally modified, fluorescent flourish. Though there is a depressing nod to the feeling of growing old and out of touch with modernity, the artwork (as well as the body of work it fronts) also hints at the way youth can be prised from the things we make and the things we do. A song like All Eyes On Me presses this point, stoking an inventive, unruly streak in the band with its fusions of techno and electro pop. Mars and the band perhaps discover through Alpha Zulu that making music can still allow them to feel like new kids on the block.
Mars’ lyrics also explore byegone infancy in the context of a relationship with the album’s best chorus on Artefact. The lyrics are vulnerable, questioning what has been preserved of the person their partner first desired. Winter Solstice, meanwhile, is a warm, pulsating highlight. A droning synth rises and falls in intensity, icily mimicking the cyclical feelings of relationship related doubt broached lyrically.
Phoenix explored Italian disco on 2017’s Ti Amo but ultimately sounded a little tired creatively in doing so. Their latest offering is much grander in scope and execution. Alpha Zulu attains universalising pop sounds that mine a wide range of influences in the pursuit of a product that is as ornate yet pertinent as a statue in the Louvre. Recording immersed in the celebrated art of the world’s most famous museum, Phoenix depend on the past as a place of present-day inspiration, not mourning, on their best album since 2009.