It’s Never Been Like That
hoenix, for all they may or may not do in the rest of their lives, have precious little to worry about. They've already written and recorded "If I Ever Feel Better," one of the most resounding victories in the history of humanity's struggle to express all the contradictory impulses of love in under five minutes' time. Sad, beautiful, inspiring, depressing, uplifting, whatever—it takes the stupid glory and savage grace of being alive and compresses it into one sweeping expression of existential bliss. The record it appeared on, United, gave us a few more chestnuts, but also left us a little uncertain as to what Phoenix were supposed to represent—the diffusion of ideas and wide variance in sound from one track to another left us an unruly, albeit at times brilliant, mess to fumble through.
2004's Alphabetical was a vastly different affair—a master's class in Euro R&B-inflected; pop, ten songs you could squeeze into like elastic-band undies, always form-fitting, always form-flattering. If it lacked an "If I Ever Feel Better," well, so do 99.9% of the albums ever recorded by the human race, so it can hardly be held to task for that. What it did have (in spades, and all) was a kind of timeless immediacy—punchy but warm; evocative of infatuation but lingering long after that first moist kiss; something effervescent, ageless and limpid as an unspoiled forest pool.
It's Never Been Like That strives for the same kind of elan, but bravely widens the band's scope to fully embrace elements of 70's / 80's / 90's FM pop at which they've only hinted before. It's as instantly gripping as its predecessor, though it does startle a bit—simply because the sensual, smooth textures have been shifted into a much more bracing sound. Opener "Napoleon Says" will please those who find Phoenix's English a bit broken and jar those who disliked the more guitar-based excursions of United—it stretches a metaphor of the famed Dictator as didactic lover over the most rocking beat the band have recorded yet. "Consolation Prizes" is the first outright stunner, Summer of Love through a meaty Summer of 2006 strainer. "Rally" keeps the retro-future vibe going and establishes the course for the ride—danceable and poppy like their last record, but making the slight stylistic change-up clear. Where Alphabetical simmered and seduced, It's Never Been Like That is more about panache and power. First single "Long Distance Call" re-engineers some of the lush prettiness of efforts past into the new formula, and all is well with the world once more.
For the balance of the album, Phoenix stick to their guns—and like Alphabetical, it's short (thirty-six minutes and change), sweet, and sublime. Also, much like its predecessor, it has its less immediate moments ("One Time Too Many" might be one song too many), but on the whole the excessive genre-bending of their debut has been exchanged for a dilettantism honed to a much sharper point. The oddly-named "Courtesy Laughs" is a rabble-rouser, Phoenix seeing your glam and raising you one pub-rock glitter-storm. It's brazenly followed by "North," a minor instrumental that most bands would tack on the end of an album, but here serves as a denouement of calm that still retains their characteristic buoyancy. "Sometimes in the Fall" and "Seconds to None" round out the record, the former suggesting Phoenix (especially on the backside of "North") might even have the odd urge to jam. It goes on a bit long, but "no complaints no echoes," whatever that means. "Seconds to None" revisits the rocking intro track, but sucks way less (another rollicking drum pattern in the service of like 30 hooks). It's almost defiant as a closer, too—leaving you with the feeling that these guys could write three-pump-chump pop ditties like this by the fistful. Wham, bam, thank you good goddamn.
With It's Never Been Like That, Phoenix have shown us once again that much of the best "American" radio-friendly pop music is being made in places where the Euro, soccer, and litre rule over the dollar, football, and gallon. It won't have Phoenix going supernova, but it will keep the fires burning until the rest of the world (hopefully, eventually) catches up with them. Most significantly, it gives us the feeling that the band is aware of its virtues but willing to experiment with their sound enough to keep the fickle pop-populi from regarding them as last year's wife.
Reviewed by: Mallory O’Donnell
Reviewed on: 2006-05-31