ometimes, 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, the production even more smooth and sophisticated, and the overall feel of the record more cohesive than United, which itself was already three-quarters of the way towards wonderful. It may have taken four years, but the time away was worth it for this band of four modern young Parisian men.
One could see Alphabetical as a Debordian triumph of style over substance, an exercise in weightless transience, or one could see it is a fine, concise, unflinchingly contemporary pop record. Either way its airily liquid, peculiarly French dance-pop is crafted to be almost entirely unmemorable at first, but upon familiarity grow 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 isn’t a problem for Phoenix. In part 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 that conveys a level of perfect, empty sense. That the lyrics he is delivering are loaded with simple, seemingly non-sequiter 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 opposite of Fight Club’s reactionary “You are not your khakis”. The same song’s refrain of “The more I talk about it / The less I do control” then becomes 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”). Whether you load these words with significance or ignore them in favour of the melodies they carry doesn’t matter, because the music is compelling either way.
And what 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, uplifting and gloriously at odds with the potential ontological emptiness of the lyrics. 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, much like their compatriots Air, Cassius and Daft Punk. 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 riding spacious loops before crashing out in a wave of Beta Band style percussive joy. The title track is a light-as-spring-rain-falling-upwards ballad, yet more confirmation that pop music is at its best when shiny, hollow and disposable, precisely because shiny, hollow and disposable is so essential (“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 is often out and the sky is usually blue.
Guy Debord’s revolutionary 1968 text (a contributing factor in kicking off the Paris student riots) 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.” You could suggest that his text, laden with near impenetrable linguistic turns, is a confluence of spectacles in itself. Alphabetical is almost certainly another, but it’s a lot more pleasurable, and as the sun gets hotter and hotter, Alphabetical just gets better and better.
Reviewed by: Nick Southall
Reviewed on: 2004-06-14