When I reviewed Alphabetical for Stylus a decade ago (a decade!) I littered the piece with references to Guy Debord; Situationist, Marxist, and author of the revolutionary 60s text The Society of the Spectacle, which basically posits the idea that society is going to hell in a handbasket because authentic social life has been replaced with its own representation, because relationships between commodities have replaced relationships between people, because of “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing”. As a third year undergraduate studying postmodern theory and writing essays about online communications I found it scintillating, terrifying, and prescient.
13 years from first encountering them, and every day in every way I feel like Debord’s ideas are being born out more and more. God knows what he’d have made of the internet. Imagine how he’d react to Buzzfeed. It doesn’t matter what you are, or even what you do; it only matters what people think they see you do. Online, it doesn’t even matter that people see you do anything; they only need to come across the digital ripples in your wake.
Where the hell does a French indiepop band fit into this?
I’m not entirely sure. I like Phoenix, a lot, but they walk a tightrope and occasionally fall of it for various reasons. I love their pointillist arrangements and non-sequiturs, their breezy lightheadedness, machine-tooled precision, English-as-a-second-language sense of ‘otherness’, and hook-friendly, sophistipop approach to songwriting.
I don’t like Phoenix when they’re trying to be an indie band and chugging at guitars, when they mix and master their records aggressively and end up sounding dreadful. It’s Never Been Like That isn’t on this list because the opening track pumps the guitars out of the way like a Daft Punk record, and sounds dreadful for it, and the deliberately sloppy approach to the rest of the album really does not suit them. Bankrupt! almost certainly wont end up on the ‘noughteenies’ equivalent of this list because it rams all the synths into the red for no reason. United doesn’t get onto this list because it’s simply too inconsistent; two great singles, a lovely ballad, and various stylistic deviations which go nowhere fast.
Thankfully, though Alphabetical and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix don’t exactly sound like Scott Walker records in terms of the pure sonics, they both deploy arrangements that seem to make the most of what they’re doing. If I was to try and assign a USP to Alphabetical to differentiate it from other Phoenix albums, I might say it’s their R&B album; it’s certainly the record where they seem most informed by early 00s hip hop and R&B sounds and techniques, and as such it’s loud but bearable like a Neptunes production; each element has oodles of space around it temporally, if not spacially.
As a result it sounds experimental in the same way as the first side of Low by Bowie does; i.e. that the songs are still ‘pop’ songs, built of hooks, catchy, singable, hummable, but they also sound like the result of experiments; asking “can we do this?” and seeing what comes out of the other end. The question asked may have been “can we run an indiepop song through a filter of R&B shapes, sounds, and precision”, and if it was, I’m glad. It’s got signifiers of delicacy and urgency, intimacy and encompassing reach, and it works amazingly well.
Likewise Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix keeps arrangements incredibly taut and hooks almost unbearably tightly packed. And what hooks; from the opening seconds it’s a barrage of blinking riffs and catchy choruses. If I was assigning USPs again, then it’s their *pop* record. Except that all their records are *pop*, of course.
Back to Debord: if there’s a nagging doubt about Phoenix it’s that they’re all surface, no feeling, as the Manic Street Preachers might put it. A whole bunch of signifiers and no signified. The short-sighted sonic approach to some of their records, despite their seeming perfectionism, weighs as evidence as far as I’m concerned. They work with fashion designers, marry moviemakers, literally sing in a language that isn’t their own, and (when it comes to drummers, at the least) bring in session musicians to do the actual work while they take the credit. But they’re so good to listen to, to sing along with mindlessly as you cruise down the sun-drenched highway. Debord would have a field day with them.