The sound of a digital diesel truck starts and Phoenix' new single “J Boy” is driving a comfortable 70 mph from 4 seconds in. Futuristic but not bleak, it is more Star Wars than Blade Runner. The song has the hooks of an hour of pop radio, but Thomas Mars is never content to be merely catchy, he has to sculpt the hooks into an ice cube tray of stylized moments.
Like his French style predecessors Daft Punk, each moment feels labored over, each sound precisely placed for maximum endorphin impact. The usual lyrical references are there — the immediacy of love, casual references to pop history, and the inevitability of permanent relationships. Kind of like a Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s Cradle “karass”, but a lot less vindictive. I dare you to name one song you'd rather listen to in a convertible in the summer of 2017 than this.
The single was our first introduction to Ti Amo, Phoenix’ slick sixth record. It is sculpted but so sweet it sounds like Michaelangelo’s David wearing Ray Bans and made out of gelato. Its all fast cars, all clean and clear pop. The kind of stuff you would hear plastered all over every radio station in your city if the world was a better place. The title is Italian for “I love you”. With the title, the exclusive Apple Music “show” and the label write-ups fantasized Italy seems to be the bulls-eye of the record.
But wait, you think, Phoenix is from France? Why a record about Italy? It could be that Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai’s father is Italian. It could be their reception in the country, their first single to hit a top ten in any country was “If I Ever Feel Better” from United in Italy in 2001. It could be that the band wrote for Ti Amo in Paris. But whatever the reason, this isn’t The Godfather Part II and Super Mario, this isn’t stereotypically Italian, this is mythical and yet inspired Italy, more of memory than reality.
But don’t let that aspect make you think this is anything other than fresh, classic Phoenix. It isn’t a track by track carbon copy of their last like Bankrupt was of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but it does echo those records.
The music itself isn’t light-years away from their sound. It’s a refined, slightly lighter and faster version of their last two. The synths on “Lovelife” recall “Chloroform” and the synths on the title track recall the previous record’s title track. “Telefono” could have fit comfortably anywhere on Its Never Been Like That. There are sonic progressions, though, which is nice for a band that has virtually sounded the same for more than a decade.
The first ten seconds of “Fleur de lys” sounds like Fela Kuti, and a vaguely afro-beat drum loop sits in the mix. “Via Veneto” spends a minute setting up, but rather than a pop explosion, we get a delicate, drum machine ballad. Its soft and unexpected, and of course, the chorus is instantly singable.
Whether speaking French, Italian or English, Phoenix speak a universal language — love. This is the one billionth record about love and there is still something to say. Because love is what unites us all. “J-Boy” is about love surviving. The title track is about love rejected. “Fior Di Latte” is about love-making. I could go through all ten, but why? Its all right there on the surface. A perfect pop soundtrack for the summer search for perfect love. B PLUS