Alphabetical still sounds fresh, its omnivorous style refusing to tether it to any particular musical moment.
For most casual music listeners, the career of French-pop act Phoenix begins with their 2009 record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Arriving at a moment where a number of other “indie” acts courted the mainstream – MGMT, Animal Collective, Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix crashed alt-radio stations with undeniable, spiky and synthy jams like “1901” and “Lisztomania.” The record brought the group true international fame, and they’ve been bright, anthemic festival headliners ever since.
But Wolfgang was the band’s fourth record, the big, inevitable pop push of a band with a previously varied and bizarre discography. For all of their present popularity, Phoenix’s best album is arguably their least loved and least well-known, 2004’s sophomore effort Alphabetical.
The first issue with Alphabetical is that its sound is difficult to classify. iTunes has classified it over the years as “rock” and “electronic,” but neither of those qualifiers do justice to its stylistic variance. Chopped-and-screwed, feedback-laden shufflers, heartbroken acoustic balladry, Europop and blue-eyed soul – Alphabetical has all of these things, without ever flaunting its versatility. In fact, the best genre to describe the record, and the term that I have always preferred, is “apartment rock.” It’s a low-key yet room-filling record that meshes perfectly with rainy afternoons and coffee-addled mornings after. Alphabetical deftly combines hip-hop-indebted production with the band’s melodic sensibility – a sound unlike any other they’ve tackled in their career.
The songs are spare but sonorous, hooky but with plenty of room to breathe. There’s an interesting production or arrangement flourish taking place in every song. “(You Can’t Blame It On) Anybody,” a clear standout, opens with a lovely Bee-Gees-esque series of layered vocal harmonies that comes back to anchor the chorus. “Victim of the Crime” rides a trilling piano line that curiously references Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” Best of all is “If It’s Not With You,” a delightful, white-boy R&B love song with call-and-response vocals. And in a sign of things to come, the band exhibits its trademark gift for sticky melodies, namely with the opening one-two punch of the stuttering and strumming “Everything is Everything” and the sidewinding, acoustic funk of “Run Run Run,” the two most recognizable tracks from the album.
There’s no mistaking that the album is a bit of a downer. Phoenix has always been good at disguising melancholy sentiments with catchy hooks – for reference, see the wonderful moment in 2009’s “Countdown” when Thomas Mars hollers “do you remember when twenty-one years was old?” over the song’s euphoric pre-chorus. On Alphabetical, however, the band lays its conflicted emotions bare with very little radio-ready adornment. The record cultivates a mood of mid-twenties emotional ambivalence – as Mars sings in the opening moments of the record, “things are gonna change, and not for better.” The title track is even more defeatist, opening with “everybody says I’m a lonesome kind of guy / I’ve been defeated by them all.” And yet, the band retains a hopeful resilience on penultimate track “Holdin’ On Together,” a tribute to the strength of twentysomething friendship. It’s an appropriately conflicted record for an appropriately conflicted time in one’s life.
Alphabetical was the first record that I ever bought on vinyl. A curious choice, and I overpaid for it too – it would be reissued less than a year later for a fraction of the cost. But I don’t regret the decision, as the commitment to buying a first edition pressing represents the curious emotional hold that Alphabetical can wield. Thomas Mars’ endearingly broken English vocals don’t effectively express his feelings as much as they convey a mood – a mood that can easily serve as a stand in for whatever emotion you may be experiencing at the moment. Twelve years after its inconspicuous release, Alphabetical still sounds fresh, its omnivorous style refusing to tether it to any particular musical moment. It’s an unmistakably peppy, loud band’s quietest, most downbeat moment – and that’s what it makes it worth continual revisiting.