Monday, June 07, 2004
Until dialogue has taken up arms to impose its own conditions upon the world
Sometimes, when the sun is hot and the sky is blue, only the clearest, cleanest, most subtly bittersweet pop music will do, and Alphabetical is the perfect record for the coming summer. Phoenix haven’t altered the formula of their debut album for their second record, they’ve just refined it. Melodies are catchier, songs are more tightly structured, and the production even more smooth and sophisticated. In short, Parisians Phoenix have got better.
Alphabetical is a triumph of weightless transience, its airy, liquid French dance-pop almost entirely unmemorable at first, but growing with familiarity into a wonderfully subtle, hook-laden album of continent-hopping (sub)urban pop which makes an ideological virtue of its superficiality.
English language pop often suffers at the tongues and dictionaries of non-native speakers who treat the idiom with too much reverence, afraid to corrupt it for the sake of imagination or insinuation, but this is never a problem for Phoenix. Partly this is due to the fact that in Thomas Mars they have a singer blessed with a beguiling voice of such languid tones that every phrase is delivered in a manner which conveys a level of perfect, empty sense. That the lyrics he is delivering are loaded with simple abstractions begging to have meaning projected into them completes the deal; “Everything Is Everything” could be a nothingness tune, or the line “the things that I posses / sometimes they own me too” could be a blindsiding rebuttal of anti-capitalist soul-searching, the refrain of “the more I talk about it / the less I do control” a refusal to submit to pointless philosophical pontificating in the face of existential reality. Likewise “I’m An Actor” and “(You Can’t Blame It On) Anybody” portray the band as pure, hollow entertainers, doing nothing more significant than playing the role of music, asking to misunderstand (over-complicate?) and deliberately contradicting themselves (“love is all / love is evil / day is night / right is wrong”).
But anyway, the music… Produced by Phoenix and recorded “in our basement”, Alphabetical is typified by sweet harmonies, gently understated melodies and easy rhythms, adding up to create a sense of almost complete weightlessness, but a rich, detailed and solid weightlessness. Artificial-sounding guitars, tiny sparks of piano and synthetic organ fills are backed by handclaps and drums that sound like handclaps; a hint of Stevie Wonder, a big slice of crisp 80s electric pop soul, a rarefied French technological sensibility; Phoenix are strange yet familiar, pop music with a deliciously corrupting hint of otherness. The aforementioned “I’m An Actor” begins with a moody but smiling stomp-jerk, while “Victim Of The Crime” could be the sound of Dr Dre producing Fleetwood Mac, delicious, gently rising choruses crashing out in a wave of Beta Band style percussive joy. The title track is a light-as-spring-rain-falling-upwards ballad, with a hint of Sly Stone in the crunchy bassline that underpins the opening, and yet more confirmation that pop music is at its best when shiny, hollow and disposable (“everybody knows that it really doesn’t matter at all”). At least half-a-dozen of the ten tunes here could be massive summer pop hits, in an alternate world where the sun if often out and the sky is usually blue.
Guy Debord’s revolutionary 1968 text, The Society Of The Spectacle, begins “the whole life of the societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” Arguably, his text is another confluence of spectacles in itself. Alphabetical is almost certainly another, and it’s great.
6/07/2004 11:15:00 pm