This week’s ALT 104.5 New Music Discovery Of The Week is “Tonight (ft. Ezra Koenig)” by Phoenix
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More on Phoenix:
Mayday, mayday: there’s disaster on the horizon and it’s time to appeal for deliverance. At least, that’s what Phoenix singer Thomas Mars thought some years ago when he was flying over Belize, sitting in the cockpit of a tiny plane during a bout of turbulence and hearing control order “Alpha Zulu, Alpha Zulu, drop altitude” over the headphones. Thomas, an otherwise rational man, is very scared of flying. (He probably watched La Bamba too many times as a kid.) He interpreted the call as an SOS. Then he realized that Alpha Zulu was the name of the plane. It was just a routine instruction.It later became a creative call to action. When Phoenix finally reunited après leconfinementto record in Paris in late summer 2020, the words “Alpha Zulu” popped out as Thomas ad libbed one day. “My bandmates thought, ‘That sounds good, what is this?’ I don’t know what that is!” he laughs. “It took me some time. It was always therapeutic writing music, the four of us, but it was like exercising –a relief just to feel good.Now it’s becoming ridiculously therapeutic, more and more of a need.”
As documented in their 2019 book, Liberté, Egalité, Phoenix, Thomas, Christian Mazzalai, Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz and Deck d’Arcy have been little short of family for more than 30 years. The book concludes with Branco saying that for the first time in their existence –one that has produced some of the most elegantly conceptual pop-rock albums of the century –he and his brothers were trying to follow the path of least resistance andsee where it took them. While they couldn’t have anticipated the pandemic scuppering the nascent recording sessions for their seventh album, they also didn’t feel held hostage by it.When they said their goodbyes in spring 2020, they knew it was serious –a friend was one of the earliest European covid patients and warned them it was no joke –and that they were unlikely to see each other again for a while. Phoenix don’t work on music much alone, so they weren’t really trying ideas out remotely. "Music isthe way we found to bring us together. I find it depressing to write on my own." says Thomas, who lives in New York.When he returned to Paris, “we were almost in a trance”, marvels Christian, typically wide-eyed, “because we met our friend again.” Adding to that otherworldly feeling was their new recording space in Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which sits in the Palais du Louvre. “We felt it would be a fantastic adventure to create something out of nothing in a museum,” says Branco. He had fantasizedabout the scene in Jean Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à Part, in which the group of young robbers try to break a record for sprinting through the Louvre. “And so with the pandemic, we could live exactly this scene, to be alone in an empty museum.”Now they had keys that opened almost every door, and “a room with maybe the best view of Paris”, says Branco: south side, first floor, facing the Louvre and flooded with gorgeous light.
During lockdown they had to enter through a distant doorway, taking a 10-minute walk through dark, empty rooms teeming with aesthetic history. The torches from their phone picked out draped statues, Memphis Group sparkle and, just before the turning to their studio, Napoleon’s “grand, goofy” gold throne. “I was a bit afraid, when there was too much beauty around us, that to create something could be a bit hard,” says Christian. “But it was the opposite: we couldn’t stop producing music. In these first 10 days, we wrote almost all of the album.”This time, they navigated this jubilant explosion of creativity alone, guided by the spirit of the late Philippe Zdar, their most profound collaborator and friend, who died in 2019. “We lost more than ever, almost,” Christian says of Zdar, a bon vivant whose spirit infused their 2009 breakthrough, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. “We had many moments where we could feel his ideas. Jeté, that’s a word he would say, when you’re throwing something very fast.” With the band attempting to stake out virgin territory, a good half of the album comprises recordings of “the first glimpse of the idea of creation of a song”, says Christian, their de facto archivist. “That’s what we wanted to keep. When we tried to re-record guitars and drum loops, there was something less pure, less candide.
On this album, all the takes, all the lyrics, they came super fast and without any control.”That, he says, is one of the key elements of the album, which they titled Alpha Zulu: “It’s almost like a daydream. Une rêverie. That’s one of the key words. You’re awake, but you’re dreaming at the same time. There’s something subconscious you don’t control.” There’s a new looseness here for Phoenix, a clash of emotions, styles and eras borne from the mad stylistic incubator that is the Musée des Arts Décoratifs: The Only One, with its blissful rain-drop percussion, clashes against the pummelling, almost techno-strafed All Eyes on Me; there’s a focus on “negative space” –a very Zdarian concept echoed in the white walls around the museum’s exhibits –and a sense of pure romance, albeittinged with a mature understanding of how precious that feeling becomes with age. To wit, Phoenix brought in their first ever guest vocalist, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who joins Thomas on Tonight, a song about two people trying to pull one another out of a state of isolation. (See also the cover artwork, a sample of Botticelli’s Mary With the Singing Child and Angels, which shows four cherubic boys poring over a mystery neon tome...)As ever, Thomas’ beautiful and cryptic lyrics wink from the fray.
They’re just as découpaged as the music: more than ever, he let the raw power of language be unburdened of any obligation to fixed meaning. Listen closely, though, and they hint at a consciousness attuned to the tussle between idealized youth and adulthood,the first flush of infatuation and the work it takes to keep long-term relationships feeling new, and how managing both entails a reckoning with control. “Being away from my friends really affected me personally,” Thomas says of his writing.He mentions My Elixir, a lonely, distant song with a sweetly rinky-dink beat that has the air of the karaoke sung in an empty bar. “Tell me anywhere is home,” he pleads in the song: “Can we go home?” He was thinking about how on Ti Amo, Phoenix finally said “I love you” –“but in a different language”, he admits. Now living in an increasingly apocalyptic-seeming US, the situation called for directness. It was then that Thomas wrote the album’s only song that wasn’t composed in the studio. His bandmates sent him a long loop with no chorus and asked him to record a stream of consciousness. The result is the album’s standout track, Winter Solstice. It might be Phoenix’s saddest song, a percussion-free rumination that gradually pulses from dark into light. “Turn the lights on / Find me a narrative / Something positive / This requiem played a few times before,” Thomas sings helplessly.Working at the Musée brought Phoenix full circle, in a way. As kids growing up in Versailles, they had rebelled against the oppressive Frenchclassicism they grew up around –the idea that culture belonged in a museum. Now, says Branco, “how is this allowed that we are all of a sudden treated like the institution?” But maybe the two institutions weren’t so disparate after all. Away from the exhibits at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, their studio became a holding space for a jumble of works: Dalí next to Medieval pieces and Lalanne sculptures. “The backstage of the museum is like a mashup,” says Deck. “It’s very pop in a way –like how we make music.”