Phoenix review, Alpha Zulu: Zut alors, it’s good!

Gang of four: Phoenix are rising to new heights on their seventh album  (Shervin Lainez/2022)
Gang of four: Phoenix are rising to new heights on their seventh album (Shervin Lainez/2022)

“Woo-ha! Singing Ha-lle-lu-jah!” yelps Thomas Mars on the title track of Phoenix’s seventh album, Alpha Zulu. The tensely sprung indie-pop groove was apparently inspired by a bout of airplane turbulence – during which Mars heard the pilot repeating the words “alpha zulu”. And the twitchy-twang of the song brilliantly captures the strange sensation of exhilaration-anxiety you get on a bumpy flight: a stomach-dropper of a bass line, glitchy exhalations from the keyboard, and the sweet thermals of vocal melody. Meanwhile, Mars blurts out surreal and surrendering lines: “Pray to your God/ Cover your lies… There’s a purple cloud in the consommé, ouais!… Why choose your body over time?”

The album – like the song – is packed with an impressive amount of energy and ideas for a band celebrating their 25th anniversary. From the rubbery bounce of Ezra Koenig collaboration “Tonight” through the shimmering pulse of “Winter Solstice”, to the moody swell of “Identical”, all 10 tracks are stacked with hooks, making it as good as their 2009 breakthrough album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

Mars says Phoenix were inspired by Talking Heads’ 1983 album Speaking in Tongues but Alpha Zulu reminds me more of their 1979 album Fear of Music, thanks to those edgy, elastic beats, restless melodies and quirky, semi-detached philosophising. Like the Heads at their best, the French quartet love to sprinkle songs with moreish morsels of sonic umami. Each track features just enough offbeat twangs, pings or twisted synth tones to keep things interesting without being cluttered.

It turns out this is a consequence of the pandemic. The band have been close friends since their school days in Versailles, but Covid restrictions meant the New York-based Mars was unable to join his bandmates, who still live in France. They couldn’t write songs over Zoom. But – as guitarist Christian Mazzalai told GQ – when Mars was finally able to meet them in Paris at the beginning of 2021, their combined creativity went “crazy, we almost couldn’t stop”.

They wrote the majority of the album in three weeks. Then they set up a recording studio, Musée des Arts Decoratifs, inside the Louvre while it was still closed. They threw dust sheets over exhibits; ran cables between packing crates. The priceless eclecticism and weird desertion are audible (and made explicit via a Mona Lisa name check and on a song called “Artefact”, accessorised with witty little harpsichord trills). They drafted in Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter to help produce – his unsentimental ear for a clean-cut dance pulse is evident.

Mars’s sophisticated stream-of-consciousness lyrics operate in perfect synchronicity with the album’s sound. Melancholy themes of mortality are balanced by a giddy commitment to seizing the dancefloor moment. Over the space invader synth “pows” of “The Only One”, the 46-year-old sings of smoking and yearning to stay “forever young”. On the pretty “Season Two”, he’s moving on with a brisk “Giddy up, I’m bored.” Over the twitchy industrial engines of “All Eyes on Me”, he’s turning the tables: “Didn’t I tell you when? Didn’t I let you win?”

The short, tight album closes with a five-minute version of “Identical”, originally written for the soundtrack of (Mars’s wife) Sofia Coppola’s 2020 film On the Rocks (about a young mother reconnecting with her playboy father). A slower burn than the rest of the material, the song retains its tension by reflecting the different opinions expressed in the film, throwing out thoughts on mistakes, regrets and gratitude. Alpha Zulu? Zut alors, it’s good!