Phoenix – ‘Alpha Zulu’ review: indie-pop’s modern masters exhibit flair and panache

The French band recorded their seventh album amidst splendour in Paris' Louvre Palace, and the museum's varied, often stunning, artefacts seep into their ever-consistent songwriting

How do you create such colourful tunes in a “world of marble”? This is the conundrum Phoenix faced in the making of their seventh album ‘Alpha Zulu’, another notch on the indie stalwarts’ belt, and one that further confirms their place as one of the scene’s most consistently enjoyable bands. Recorded in Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, part of the Louvre Palace, the French band took up residency in the gallery with their temporary studio complex during lockdown, but they were hesitant about the austere surrounding they recorded in; being a part of the institution, they recently said NME, was a big mental obstacle to overcome.

They needn’t have worried: this record carries some of Phoenix’s most intimate and approachable songs in years. It follows 2017’s ‘Ti Amo’, whose balmy Italo disco-indebted tunes would melt the gelato all the way down the cone and onto your fingers; this was was a stunning rebirth for a band twenty years into the game, and was supported with their best tour yet. ‘Alpha Zulu’ takes those lessons and refines them somewhat: there are nods to the razor-sharp pop hits from their beginnings (‘If I Ever Feel Better’), to the indie-disco bangers that preceded their era of early ‘10s indie (1901, ‘Lisztomania’).

‘Alpha Zulu’ was recorded in a confusing time. The band had never spent more than a few weeks except each other, with frontman Thomas Mars residing in New York with his wife, director Sofia Coppola, and the band remaining in their homeland. The crystallised ‘Winter Solstice’, the first-ever song the band hadn’t written together in a room, sees Mars yearn for connection with his brothers; ‘Tonight’, the record’s crown jewel, imagines a long-distance call between star-crossed lovers, Mars and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig playing the dueting roles perfectly.

Philippe Zdar, the late French touch pioneer and trusted Phoenix producer and confidante, tragically passed prior to the album’s production, but his legacy is keenly felt here. Written soon after Zdar’s death in 2018, and released two year later for Coppola’s On The Rocks, the version of ‘Identical’ that features here is beefed-up and expanded, the emotional weight heftier than ever: “I’m losing my friend, I’m losing my grip/Praying all night to radio waves”, Mars coos. ‘All Eyes On Me’ and the album’s title-track, meanwhile, feature some of their heaviest, most danceable structures to date, pulling from their frenetic sounds of their 2000 debut ‘United’ – it’s as if Zdar remains in the room with them.

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‘Alpha Zulu’, then, refuses to stand on ceremony with their surroundings; they appreciate the scale, but never desert their character. It’s like wandering the halls of the band’s own personal gallery, a stroll through time, and a possibility to see some of their most glistening pieces yet up close.

Details

  • Release date: November 4, 2022
  • Record label: Glassnote
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