Phoenix: Alpha Zulu album review - box fresh and effortlessly cool, even after 22 years

 (SHERVIN LAINEZ 2022)
(SHERVIN LAINEZ 2022)

From the holy trinity of modern French music, only Versailles quartet Phoenix remain. Daft Punk announced their split last year, and though Air are officially still a duo, they haven’t released a full album for a decade. But Phoenix fly on without a hitch, 22 years since their debut, still sounding box fresh and effortlessly cool on a superb seventh album.

The band’s ongoing appeal is helped by the increasing dominance in the music world of the genreless sound they pioneered. Never shying from sonic detours that others might consider naff (their first album contained a nine-minute song called Funky Squaredance) today the guitars are less audible beneath a sharp digital sheen, but thanks to Thomas Mars’s casual vocal delivery and the group’s easy way with an optimistic melody, it’s plainly the same four men.

You might expect some pretentiousness to creep in on Alpha Zulu, given the way it was made. They were invited to set up a recording studio inside the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, a part of the Palais du Louvre, working yards away from priceless candelabras and the golden throne of Napoleon I. The cover borrows some figures from Botticelli’s Madonna col Bambino mediante otto angeli, but they’re looking at a glowing tablet that appears futuristic. There’s little sense of reverence for the past in the music, which gives Mars’s voice a robotic makeover on the chorus of Artefact, and prefixes a “hallelujah” with a “Woo! Ha!” on the strutting title track.

If there’s another band they sit close to today, it’s probably New York’s Vampire Weekend, who seem equally incapable of running out of inventive, instantly hummable tunes across their catalogue. So it’s fitting that Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig becomes Phoenix’s first ever guest contributor on record, sharing vocals on a strong candidate for the band’s catchiest song. The bassline on Tonight is almost impossible to listen to sitting down.

There are some more experimental moments too, especially at the slower end of the scale. My Elixir sounds like it was recorded with a cheap keyboard on “demo” mode but still manages to be quietly touching. Winter Solstice is a rare example of the band working separately, made during lockdown with Mars in America and the others in France. Its synth chords build to something vivid and grand.

With a sound that has never dated, there’s plenty more here to confirm that there’s no reason why Phoenix should stop doing what they’re doing now.

Loyaute/Glassnote