I really don’t know very much about French pop music outside of Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot and Alizée (the latter for hotness factor alone; I couldn’t even hum one of her songs). But a prerequisite in French pop is not necessary to listen to and enjoy the latest record by French band Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Indeed, if their press didn’t constantly mention their Frenchiness, I would have never known they were French at all. French.
In their album title and in the title of the lead-off track (“Lisztomania”), Phoenix reference an 18th and 19th century composer, respectively, one considerably more famous than the other. However, Franz Liszt was one of the first pop stars of his time, greeted at concerts by squealing women in an age where such things were uncommon. So, what do these two composers have to do with this record? That’s a difficult question to answer. While the lyrics of all of the songs are in English, their brief, fragmented statements do not easily reveal an underlying meaning apart from some common themes of past, present, and future. Looking to the music may be the best way to discern the meaning behind the references. Mozart was a rigid perfectionist, and some of that comes out in the meticulously produced pop of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Phoenix have crafted obsessively arranged little pop tunes in which each stacatto piano or synth piece weaves intricately into the accompanying guitar stabs, bouncy drum rhythms, and vocal yelps of frontman Thomas Mars. It’s those same yelps that seem to point towards the Liszt reference. Liszt was known in particular for his fiery interpretations of Mozart’s songs, among others, consciously adding his own emotions and disregarding classicist formality to make an impact with his audience. Viewed in that respect, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix comes off as a philosophical exercise in striking the balance between tradition and growth, reason and emotion, respect and fame. Phoenix themselves have evolved through several different identities since their 2000 debut. This record appears to be their approximation of making music that remains respectable to purists while still making an effort to break into the mainstream. Of course, I could be wrong about all of that.
Overall, this is a good record, and it contains many enjoyable songs, with “Lisztomania”, “1901”, and “Lasso” being the standouts. However, it seems to me that the meticulous structure of the songs wins out a little bit over the emotion, making for fun but slightly mechanical pop that is easy to respect and enjoy, but not quite as easy to fall in love with.
Phoenix – “1901”