A friend first introduced me to Phoenix as a hybrid of Daft Punk and the Strokes, and at the time in 2006 — when both acts still felt like the coolest in the world even though they were starting to sound less and less like the artists that earned them those designations — there was hardly a better way to sell me on a band, nor a better time for one to take up and run with both mantles. Phoenix had just released “Long Distance Call,” and immediately they were in the running for my favorite band in the world. It’s Never Been Like That, the French quartet’s third studio album, was everything I had wanted from First Impressions Of Earth. Where the Strokes turned their streamlined garage rock into a murkier, muddled thicket, Phoenix tightened up the unfocused assortment of electronica and indie of their first two albums and made the most effervescently smooth guitar pop album of the decade.
I was convinced Phoenix more than any other band deserved to conquer the world, and then to my surprise they did. Their blockbuster follow-up, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, seized the zeitgeist, garnering enough clout to soundtrack Cadillac commercials and Super Bowl montages, alongside its songs making their way into all sorts of television, video game, and film placements. “1901,” a song that supposedly pays tribute to early Paris (but as with all Phoenix songs, could really be about anything you want it to be), became the de facto anthem of the US in 2009 through sheer ubiquity, but also undoubtedly for presenting a sound that would go on to recast indie in softer shades.
That sound — composed of guitars that feel like synths and synths that feel like strobe lights — was weightless, soulful, and capable of putting a skip in the step of even the most stubborn cynic. Although the lightly plucked starshine and spherical basslines became synonymous with the turn of the decade, their immaculate expression on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix formed an evergreen style, one that maintains its freshness every time you press repeat. The album was extraordinary and has aged better than the rest of the critically acclaimed LPs from that year because it’s the only one that doesn’t seem to have aged at all.
In that respect, maybe it wasn’t weird that Phoenix wound up as festival headliners by 2013, but it certainly wasn’t expected. Bands that topped the Coachella and Lollapalooza lineups were supposed to have established brands — the kinds with wide catalogues known by the masses, if slightly diluted by over-familiarity. Phoenix, on the other hand, had two songs that everyone knew and a whole bunch they didn’t — and not enough name recognition for most attendees to have realized they were that band behind those hits anyway. They seemed to have been grandfathered into the position more out of a lack of relevant contemporary big budget artists than from necessarily becoming one themselves (festivals needed to find some band to book that wasn’t the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and this was prior to most fests saying fuck it and finally, fully embracing EDM). The band didn’t necessarily plan their fortuitous ascendence either: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s firm grip on the cultural moment came across as a happy accident moreso than a calculated coup. We were finally catching on after It’s Never Been Like That went criminally ignored; Phoenix weren’t trying to catch up.
Bankrupt!, on the other hand, was an album that tried to meet the band’s massive new audience halfway, to validate their mighty new big-leagues status. Ironically for an album that at first seemed a deliberately sleek collection of surface-level pleasures — albeit comprising unique, colorful timbres — Bankrupt! wound up the underrated grower of the Phoenix catalogue. It’s shiny, sure, but it’s also suave, light on its feet, and filled with a number of songs that, like all great Phoenix singles, can turn around a down mood at the drop of a synth.
Yet the LP was met with a lukewarm reception — the first Phoenix record to not feel more substantial than the last. This year’s Ti Amo continued the trajectory toward a comparably minor scope, but it also didn’t seem to be as interested in the stakes. It’s a more casual album than Bankrupt!, fewer in both bold moments and left turns. It also leans further into that glossy, glitzy, glamorous coating that Bankrupt! evolved from the soft-rock palette they broke through on. You can consider United and Alphabetical the band’s identity-forming early years, It’s Never Been Like That and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix their credibility and clout-building peak, and Bankrupt! and Ti Amo their settled middle-age period. Which isn’t to say that Phoenix are now some shell of their former greatness; rather, they’ve transitioned remarkably gracefully. They haven’t disappointed yet, just calmed down. It’s probably about time they release their greatest hits album.
I’m convinced Phoenix have a better career retrospective album awaiting them than any of their mid-aughts indie superstar peers, which means their crowd-pleasing live sets are uniquely unmatched. But I also figured Ti Amo would be the first album from the band to lower that future collection’s batting average. It’s been about four months since Ti Amo’s release, and none of the album’s “hits” have struck with a whole lot of staying power. It’s full of great songs and works well as a holistic mosaic evocative of summer nights set in what the 1970s thought the 2000s would be like, but much of that floral, AM radio production just wouldn’t stand to caliber stacked against the full-fleshed urgency of “Consolation Prizes” or “Lisztomania.”
Yet last night at Washington DC’s brand new venue the Anthem, those Ti Amo songs proved exceptionally up to task. They transcribe live as explosive, inverted disco — all dropping as huge crowd pleasers prime for jubilant swaying. The band opened their set with “J-Boy” and it sounded like an established classic, all neon-drenched like a digitized sunset. They closed with a reprise of “Ti Amo” that felt like it could soundtrack the actual Super Bowl and not merely its advertisements. Between them, the album’s deeper cuts shone with a potential untapped when buried within the record, from the carnal carnival pleasures of “Fior Di Latte” (“We’re meant to get it on” makes for an absolutely phenomenal chorus) to the translucent shimmer of “Tuttifrutti,” which came across as a well-aged hit — like it could sit comfortably between “Too Young” and “1901” on a greatest hits CD.
Because a band’s new album sales tend to reflect an audience’s feelings towards their previous album, Phoenix rocketed into headliner slots on the strength of the widespread love for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Now that they’re no longer festival toppers, that album doesn’t exude as strong of a chokehold over the proceedings; nor do its hits comprise the best, or even the biggest, moments of the show. Instead, “If I Ever Feel Better” took the prize for most joyous crowd reaction: the oldest song on the setlist now grown into a top-tier hit after its initial anonymity at the start of the century. Meanwhile “Trying To Be Cool” was the seemingly unanimous point in which everyone was inspired to light up. The song that most stepped up above its weight class was “Rally,” distinct as the most straight-ahead rocker during the night and also an overall highlight for its delightful shimmy and a seductively detached chorus Julian Casablancas probably kicked himself for not writing first.
Even the songs from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix that felt the most substantial weren’t its most famous cuts. “Girlfriend” fluttered flawlessly and felt more like a single than the actual single “Lasso.” Meanwhile “Armistice” went over as massive and familiar as any of the decade’s biggest radio staples despite not having contended with them for radio play. The band dropped “Lisztomania” fourth in the set, and somehow that early reveal didn’t feel out of place. They simply had better songs waiting in the wings, songs that rival even their second biggest hit’s gleeful strut. Furthermore, the more casual placement actually allowed “Lisztomania” to reveal elements beyond its nostalgia-caked surface, with the band highlighting the composition’s deeper nooks and grooves. They really sunk their teeth into the song’s sprightly bridge, which was only one of many reminders during the set that, for all their prime hooks, Phoenix are sneakily masters of constructing middle-eights. From “Entertainment”’s soaring robo-choir to the watercolor noodling of “Lasso,” the best sections of the set weren’t the sing-alongs, but the spaces in-between.
Which isn’t to say that those sing-alongs weren’t expectedly expressive and jubilant. Due to his accent and his refusal to pronounce anything in a conventional way, no one really knows what Thomas Mars is saying half the time, but that didn’t stop anyone from singing along with their own lyrics they’ve come to internalize with these songs. At every chance the crowd shouted back at the stage melodically mirrored variations on Mars’ incomprehensible yelps in a communicative dance that felt lovingly intimate. When the vocal mic partially dropped out for “Trying To Be Cool”‘s first verse, we were all more than happy to take lead, as was also the case for the onset of each “Lisztomania” chorus. Mars, sauntering around in a fittingly tropical shirt looking like a beach-bound Owen Wilson, seemed to relish every moment of audience participation, perhaps taking it in that no matter the scale they play to, the enthusiasm remains.
Although an entirely emphatic affair, the atmosphere from the band was as unconcernedly casual as the rest of the Ti Amo rollout has been. The band performed in front of a slanted mirror backdrop that reflected a bird’s-eye view of the stage to the audience, which allowed for a few fun tricks like the illusion of Mars perched on projected pillars over the crowd when he was actually laying on the floor, but ultimately just helped blow up the lights to a more immersive level. Regardless, none of the hues draped over the stage could hold a candle to the vibrancy of the band’s richly textured sounds, seemingly willed into shape out of magic more than music.
At their very core, Phoenix are alchemists — capable of wringing a slippery swagger out of even the most rigid materials. Especially with their last few records, the band has made metallic masterpieces out of cheap, tinny materials by rounding out their ringing highs with a skillful, oftentimes sensual sense for pacing. While at first I was disappointed by the lack of even a single song from 2004’s Alphabetical, I came to realize the muted crawl of “Everything Is Everything” and “Run Run Run” might have momentarily forgone some of the carefully held together momentum. Phoenix crafted the order with a keen eye, and played to their high-bpm strengths, fully committing to and succeeding in delivering a performance without lull.
That’s how those Ti Amo songs wound up so nimbly hitting their mark. They were custom-built for inciting instinctive movement. I’m guilty at most concerts for falling back on self-conscious shoulder-swinging while my feet stay rigid in place, but with Phoenix I couldn’t help but throw around my hips and kick up my feet like a Friday-night fool four drinks in (for the record, it was a Monday and I only had two). The most euphoric shows are those where a band proves to me that my body can move in ways I never previously experienced, and last night Phoenix made it clear that it’s not any one album that makes a headliner out of a band, but the actual musicians. So no matter the venue size or their poster billing, every time Phoenix grace the stage they feel like the biggest band in the world.