Phoenix: A Retrospective

Now five albums deep in discography, French quartet Phoenix have a rich history of defining moments. From the iconic release of Wolfgang Amadeaus Phoenix, snagging a guest appearance from non-other than Daft Punk at their 2010 Madison Square show their much lesser known role as backing band to AIR for their early TV appearances. Ahead of their upcoming dash across Australia we thought we’d take a peek at each of the Phoenix albums and find a highlight or memory or two to get ready for their surely packed set lists.

United – 2000

United was a dreamy album that has stood the tests of time with ease. It contains the imperfections that challenge obsessive love, but is strong enough to make you stop caring about them and love it as a body of work. Arguably the best kind of love for an album to have. As a seven-year-old, I remember running across the house upon hearing the first few bars of ‘Too Young’ playing on Rage. Eighteen years later and you’d be hard pressed to find me not doing the same thing (If my housemates ever watched Rage).

United was the first release for the band, but more than anything else works as a near perfect blueprint for their discography. From the perfect pop rock structures of ‘Too Young’ and ‘If I Ever Feel Better’ through to the more self-indulgent nature of ‘Funky Square Dance (Part 1/2/3)’, each phase of the album is expanded on in a full album later on in the bands career.

Alphabetical – 2003

They say that the sophomore slump is the hardest hurdle to overcome and with Phoenix it was an interesting case. Alphabetical starts on a strong note, and keeps it up with each track. But it is without a doubt one of their less memorable albums and that’s a heart-breaking affair.

Early on its ‘Run Run Run’ that stands out, with noticeable references to both AIR and Radiohead in the sound it’s all tied together by Thomas Mars distinctive vocal and writing style. ‘Love for Granted’ offers a vulnerability that we were yet to see from Phoenix, only to be later contrasted by the slow-groove worthy ‘Holdin’ On Together’. In summary, Alphabetical is a release that shows a degree of confidence in the band to experiment not only with their sound but with their own confidence in influences.

It’s Never Been Like That – 2006

The first notes of It’s Never Been Like That are jarring, but album opener ‘Napoleon Says’ is an outstanding piece that shows all the best sides of Phoenix. It sounds different to anything else within the scene yet lingers so comfortably in the lyrical range that later made Phoenix such an iconic band. Whilst it may have been the follow up – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix that pushed Phoenix into the popular crowd, all the signs could be found here on It’s Never Been Like That.

It’s Never Been Like That could almost be the perfect starting point for an unfamiliar Phoenix fan. It lacks the ambitious self-indulgence found in United and is more of a comfortable listen than the constant classics of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Coming back to this album after growing up listening to Phoenix, this was the stand out rediscovery. It may be slightly lighter on the singles than the other albums but is front to back solid material. It teases the brilliance that is to come, but respects the experimentation and development that came before.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – 2009

Finding a Phoenix fan who doesn’t rank Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix as the best Phoenix album would be a hard bet, and convincing anyone who was introduced to the band (as many were) by this release would have a hard time being convinced that this isn’t an album of the generation. Nine years on, it’s every track stands strong, but better than that has the nostalgia value to go off at indie parties every single time.

It opens on its biggest track, ‘Lisztomania’ is a track that is familiar to near anyone in their mid-twenties whether they be a fan of Phoenix or not and just keeps on going from here. It oozes confidence and casual swagger that would usually be better left to someone like the Arctic Monkeys. And that’s part of the thing, between the release of It’s Never Been Like That bands like The Arctic Monkeys, The Wombats, and The Kooks had all surged onto the scene. Each had their own defined style of indie rock and were chasing on Phoenix’s tail. Their debuts were strong and there was an entire generational segment who were ready to eat these bands up. But Phoenix, a band now nine years into their career managed to overshoot near all these acts with an album that was consistently impressive.

To this day, this is an album that can be appreciated. I know exactly where copy of the album on CD sits, and have rinsed even the excessive number of remixes over the years. It’s an album full of classic tracks, and one that deserves every inch of praise it’s ever received and probably more.

Bankrupt! – 2013

Bankrupt was a bit of a shock to the Phoenix fan base. It received far from the critical acclaim of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix but to an almost unfair level. My first listen, was one of slight confusion, this is a new more self-indulgent Phoenix. They were no longer trying to prove a point or be the biggest indie/pop rock band out there, they were just trying to make their own music. Which makes you realise that was always their point. Phoenix had some serious hits in their earlier discography, but most, if not all, were rather unconventional in form. Bankrupt was a chance for them to return to their roots and seemingly reject the apparent pressures of following up with another pop friendly album. The shimmering synth work of the title track contrasts perfectly with the bold ‘Trying to Be Cool’ yet both act as highlights on the release.

As a whole, Bankrupt is a release that shimmers just out of reach, almost impossible to ground with its floating instrumental work, but with Mars’ lyrics keeping things just grounded enough that once you get past the first few listens the Phoenix we’ve come to love really has the chance to shine. It may have been a testing release, but the arrival of Gesaffelstein’s remix of ‘Trying to be Cool’ was an easy highlight of the album cycle. The brooding rework is heavier, and far more grounded than anything else on the release and highlighted the strength of both artists involved. It was a testimony to Phoenix and to Gesaffelstein that such a contrasting pair of styles could be blended so well.

Ti Amo – 2017

In a strange way, Ti Amo could be Phoenix’s most inspirational album to date. It’s a prime case of the band living their best life. It’s self-indulgent to a level that we haven’t seen since ‘Funky Square Dance’ on United. It lacks the iconic hits that we’d gotten used to hearing on Phoenix albums and rather offers a wealth of slow burners that reward the effort given by the listener. In having said that, ‘J-Boy’, ‘Ti Amo’ and ‘Role Model’ all lean directly into the sounds of earlier Phoenix material.

Ti Amo is bound to bring a new element to Phoenix’s live show. The late-night groove elements of so many of the tracks provide the excuse to slowly dance away the feeling of lack of familiarity. Ti Amo shows that when it comes to Phoenix it’s less about knowing every word of their releases as it is being willing to embrace their artistic direction.

Over the past 18 years, Phoenix have released a wealth of material and little, if any, of which can be faulted. Having them continue their world tour around Australia next week is an exciting time to see how they can combine the sounds of each era whilst offering a journey that matches the fan memories. It should be a set of shows that shouldn’t be missed.

See it live:

Sat, 24th Feb. 
Sydney City Limits, Sydney. 
Mon, 26 Feb.
Forum Theatre, Melbourne.
Wed, 28 Feb.
The Tivoli, Brisbane.

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