Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix Turns 10
The year was 2009; the song was “1901.” Even more so than “My Girls,” “Two Weeks,” and “Stillness Is The Move” — and arguably only eclipsed by the long-tail dominance of Oracular Spectacular’s troika of hits — the lead single from Phoenix’s cheekily titled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix became the ambient hum of the year’s indie crossover boom. The album turns 10 years old this Saturday, and in keeping with the rising tide of 2009 nostalgia, it’s time to flash back.
Nowadays it sounds like a car commercial because that’s exactly what it became. But when Phoenix released “1901” at the end of winter, its synth-powered update on the lite guitar-pop mastery of It’s Never Been Like That simply sounded great. “It’s logical growth, really,” my Stereogum predecessor Amrit Singh blogged at the time. After all, “Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz was in a band with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo aka Daft Punk once upon a day.” Brancowitz himself saw Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix as a return to the sophisticated gloss of the band’s debut United, before they had the bright idea to turn indie rock into yacht rock, although in the same interview frontman Thomas Mars proclaimed, “The last record was about our present, this one is about our future.”
Whichever direction they were moving, “1901” was the sort of song that makes you want to come along, sleek and propulsive and absurdly catchy — also just plain absurd, thanks to Mars’ notoriously inscrutable lyrics. The way those keyboard blasts sliced across that steady Strokes guitar churn made for a hell of a hook even before Mars beamed in with his holographic melodies, capped off by a hall-of-fame mondegreen for a chorus. Or was it just me who long assumed Mars was singing, “Fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, fallin'”? (Real lyrics: “Fold it, fold it, fold it, fold it!”) Phoenix fans immediately dug it, and soon indie listeners in general did too. And then the album dropped, summer kicked in, and “1901” was everywhere.
So were Phoenix themselves. They maintained a ridiculous schedule throughout 2009, appearing on every late-night TV show and at seemingly every festival in the world. (Watching them kick out the jams before Crystal Castles and Girl Talk was the highlight of my one and only trip to Bonnaroo; choosing the aforementioned MGMT over Nine Inch Nails was my biggest mistake.) Thus, the eventual onslaught of syncs felt inevitable. Soon you could hear “1901” in both Gossip Girl and the rebooted Melrose Place, in PlayStation ads and PlayStation games alike. For one luxury automaker, it was out with “Rock And Roll,” in with French indie pop. A voiceover touted the SRX as “the Cadillac of crossovers,” a description that worked just as well for the song in the ad.
Remarkably, “1901” still had a ways to climb. It wouldn’t reach its #84 peak on the Billboard Hot 100 until January 2010. A month later it crested at #1 on the alternative charts, right around the time Phoenix won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album. For once, the Recording Academy got it right. The glory of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is that its other nine tracks are in the same league as “1901.” Some of them might even be better. For the second album in a row, Phoenix had honed in on an immensely appealing aesthetic and applied it to a batch of pop songs so effervescent you might not notice the meticulous craftsmanship.
The album’s other signature hit, “Lisztomania,” has actually been more enduring. It’s the one McDonald’s maybe ripped off, the one at the center of a major fair use lawsuit. Most famously, it’s the one that soundtracked viral footage of young socialist folk hero and Fox News archvillain Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing on a rooftop in college. “Lisztomania” is every bit as immaculate as “1901” and just as jaunty, with a beat that incites involuntary finger-snapping and an arrangement that moves — and gleams — like gears in a Swiss watch.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix doesn’t peak with those two songs so much as it establishes a high standard the rest of the album mostly lives up to. The hard-charging “Lasso” indeed ropes you in with its confetti-bomb chorus, while “Rome,” “Countdown,” and “Girlfriend” continually find new ways to whoosh you into reverie. Despite its unmistakable aesthetic consistency, the album boasts surprising range; it’s broad enough to include “Fences,” a synth jam that both predicts and rebukes today’s chilled-out Spotifycore, and “Armistice,” the spy-movie heavy hitter that closes out the tracklist on a surprisingly muscular note. Their work was so contagiously catchy back then that even the requisite two-part experimental detour “Love Like A Sunset” plays out like a journey into the heart of pop music.
Phoenix have always handled their albums with care, but where the songwriting on more recent Bankrupt! and Ti Amo has been less consistently awesome, in the late aughts they were on fire. They’d tapped into something special on It’s Never Been Like That, a stylish, guitar-powered spin on easy listening that hit like cool summer breeze. The music was so casually brilliant and approachable that every song became an anthem even when you couldn’t tell what Mars was singing about, which was most of the time. His songs probably meant something to him, but on the receiving end, it was pleasure for pleasure’s sake from a band seemingly incapable of hitting a bum note.
Wolfgang maintained that spark. Gorgeous melodies continued to spill out of Mars, each vocal a Julian Casablancas hook converted into a beam of light. His bandmates kept on building brisk and agile vehicles for those tunes, this time souping them up with state-of-the-art technology with help from producer Philippe Zdar. Phoenix had always dabbled in electronic music, and on this album they merged that history with the organic guitar-pop they’d more recently perfected. This synthesis went over extremely well in the then-booming festival scene, where Phoenix would eventually ascend to headliner status largely on the strength of this album. It may have gone over a little too well, given the way alternative radio and fest lineups were soon flooded with inferior groups aping the synth-powered sounds of “1901,” “Kids,” and “Sleepyhead.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix wasn’t just built for festivals, though. It was designed for summer itself. In the US, the album came out on Memorial Day, the unofficial kickoff to the season, and proceeded to be indie kids’ go-to windows-down soundtrack for months to come. As the sun shines into my office window and I count the minutes until the launch of another holiday weekend, it sounds as spectacular as ever. We all require refreshment in this messed-up world, and a decade later Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix still hits the spot — an audio vacation 36 minutes at a time, every time.