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Friday, June 12, 2009 

Looking back 2008: Phoenix

(In which Ian mostly avoids writing about any sort of 2008 best-of list in favour of writing up, in no particular order, ten (or so) albums from past years he spent time listening to, thinking about or discovering during 2008. An occasional series, but one which will hopefully be finished rather than abandoned. Ha! You thought I forgot!)

Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That

So Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is currently nestled in the #2 spot for my tentative year-end list for 2009, which maybe is a bit odd as I don't really love it any more than It's Never Been Like That, and that album only made #10 in 2006. Part of that is that I discovered more albums I really loved in 2006 than I have so far in 2009, but part of that is just that I think I underestimated Phoenix. Certainly a lot of people did and still do undervalue INBLT, especially compared to the admittedly great WAP (if I had realized the shitstorm to follow I probably wouldn't have knocked Evan Sawdey for doing so in his otherwise good review of the latter album). Of course, I've heard much of the band's first two albums and remain unimpressed by them as a whole, so I'm the weird Phoenix fan who likes them most as a rock band (which they certainly are in WAP).

Or is that it? I think the differences between Phoenix's last two albums are less about sonics and more about emotions or maybe narratives, and I think maybe the reason I prefer them to the earlier albums is that I don't think the band, and especially singer Thomas Mars, had really realized their strengths on United and Alphabetical. Sawdey refers to Mars' "disaffected croon" in his review, and at first I thought "that's not right - surely Mars' worth as a frontman is precisely in the ache in his voice?" But you listen to "Too Young" or "Everything Is Everything" or "If I Ever Feel Better," apparently classic Phoenix songs that I've always found weirdly underwhelming, and you realize that Sawdey is right - there's a disconnect there that, while not necessarily the product of the glossier, more electronic surfaces of the band's first two albums, is certainly amplified by them. Phoenix's first two albums sound callow, cynical, but also fabulous.

It's Never Been Like That is immediately different. Once you've heard it a few times, it's clear that the title isn't just from the great "Long Distance Call" - the point of it, in the song and on the album as a whole, is that it's a guy suddenly realizing that he's feeling something he hasn't felt before. It's the romantic equivalent of Nelson Muntz going "you made me bleed my own blood!" But more than that, It's Never Been Like That is an album about things ending - people move away before you can date them, you're combing through your ex's boxes of stuff looking for things to sell; the key line of the album is probably "Rally"'s "as long as you're gone, it won't happen at all." WAP, meanwhile, is about things starting up, or at least trying to; the key line there is probably from "1901." The lyrics in the CD booklet insist that it's "Fold it, fold it, fold it, fold it" but I can't help but hear "Falling, falling, falling, falling" (in a pinch you could go instead for the same song's "past and present, they don't matter now the future's sorted out"). In both cases, though, things are not working out, and crucially both albums end on a note of indecision.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix ends not just with "Armistice" (complete with "Love Will Tear Us Apart" reference!) and its ambivalent chorus with lights going out and treaties signed, but with a further, muddled passage "for lovers in a rush" that leaves Mars wild-eyed and us unsure. It's Never Been Like That, meanwhile, ends with the as-frantic-as-Phoenix-gets "Second to None," which not only frets that "I've changed, you've changed, it's not the same!" (and immediately and futilely pleads "tell me what's the difference if I go back to normal again?"), but ends with the heated, wailed disavowal/accusation of "I thought I heard a lie, I thought I heard a liar."* In each case, after a number of songs plumbing fairly consistent thematic ground Phoenix refuse to end things with either sadness or reconciliation - things are always still up in the air, but they always don't look that promising.

And in both cases, this is such an effective choice both because of the way Mars' real strength as a vocalist turns out to be his yearning as well as how much Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai love their post-Strokes guitars, all open chiming (that, crucially, almost never resolves into anything) and how forceful and effective a rhythm section Deck D'Arcy and drummer Thomas Hedlund are. Hedlund, interestingly enough, isn't listed as part of the band on either album, but he plays drums (or his drums are sampled) on all of the songs on INBLT and WAP except for two.

But while I'm currently listening to and even maybe enjoying Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix more than its predecessor (the shock of the new, you know), I probably will always be more fond of It's Never Been Like That. "Rally," "Long Distance Call," "One Time Too Many," and "Sometimes in the Fall" are fantastic songs about the pain of someone leaving in a geographic as well as emotional sense, basically, and I started listening to it a lot in 2007, at a tumultuous time in my personal life when, yes, someone I cared about deeply was moving to the other side of the continent. You don't run into that kind of serendipitous collision between life and art that often, and when you do it hits hard. To this day when I hear Mars sing "Don't go away, we're so near... I have nothing to say but the things I know" it feels like I'm the one who's singing it. It doesn't help that "Consolation Prizes" is such a fantastic song about attraction, or that "Lost and Found" (probably my favourite Phoenix song) so precisely atomizes a certain kind of bittersweet but necessary relinquishing of ties between two people. "Let go," he sings, "It's so hard to fill me in."

That it's followed up by the self-protectively angry "Courtesy Laughs" ("I hate that kind of wrong affection / I ain't ready to talk at all / It's all lies, misunderstandings" has sometimes been a bit of a mantra for me, for better or worse) only makes the openhearted wisdom of "Lost and Found" more striking. That they're both followed by the lengthy, melancholy instrumental "North" seemed like a mistake at first but the more I listen to the album the more it seems like a particular kind of genius, in terms of pacing (both sonic and emotional). Phoenix have always made short, punchy, albums, and to their credit aren't afraid to toss in a "North" (or a "Love Like a Sunset") when it seems appropriate. And in this case, the way the succeeding "Sometimes in the Fall" briefly recapitulates "North" as a middle eight makes the instrumental not just worthwhile but crucial.

Where Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is jittery and hopeful, then, It's Never Been Like That is ruefully wise and a little mournful. Between the two albums you've got the reason why I think Phoenix is such a great band, and why they're currently one of my favourites; but since the gap between them is mainly (as far as I can tell) about the kind of story they're building rather than anything else, I don't think I'll ever get why some people seem to love one and hate the other.

*(in the liner notes, it's actually "I thought I heard a lie, I thought I heard a 'liar'," which changes the line from merely directed at the Other to one directed at both her and himself)

Previously on looking back 2008:
Burial
Radiohead
The Twilight Singers

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That makes four... I'm going to try and do 10 or 12 of these, I think.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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