Breezes along at an inoffensive clip.
Nearly two decades into their career, the members of Phoenix can boast an extremely distinct, unique sound in the world of synth-fueled alt rock. That is both a blessing and a curse. The French quartet has separated itself from the pack but must strive to make each album a distinct effort, free from the criticism of sameyness. The problem there is that 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was the band’s definitive moment, and, to many, everything else will always pale in comparison. That bias aside, their sixth album Ti Amo continues the pattern of lush synthpop – frequently at the cost of their indie rock tendencies – but is a wholly repetitive affair, breezing along at an inoffensive clip without giving any of these 10 tracks real substance.
What you expect from a Phoenix song is a shimmering layer of electric guitars and electro-pop synths, topped with Thomas Mars’ nasally vocals. The combination usually makes for a driving pop masterclass that tends to overshadow Mars’ lyrics, which are delivered so quickly it’s difficult to parse out the meaning anyway. On Ti Amo, the band veers towards disco-indebted synths and romantic arrangements. Press releases nod to a nostalgic Italian fantasy as an overarching theme, but Mars mostly seems to name-drop famous Italian street, artists and sweet delicacies. There are tracks entitled “Via Veneto” after the Rome street, “Tuttifrutti” and “Fior Di Latte.”
The whole thing is pure escapism, especially on “Tuttifrutti” when Mars croons “Come buy a ticket/To your next vacation.” That track builds itself around a whistling synth and muscular dance beat. The guitars and Deck d’Arcy’s bass certainly embrace that disco vibe. But the song itself seems to be describing a wild, reckless vacation on the Riviera, complete with trashing motels. “Wreck the spectacle you live in/ Broken glass and porcelain” almost sounds like meta commentary on this glitzy life being described, but it’s hard to know if Mars intended that or just thought it sounded cool. Because substance is sorely lacking on Ti Amo.
Most tracks here become lyrically, if not musically, repetitive. “Fior Di Latte,” for instance, is a very direct love song whose bridge is the line, “We’re meant to get it on” repeated over and over. The choruses of “Fleur de Lys” is even worse, with “No rest till I get to you, no rest till I get to you, no!” repeated four times each. Mars avoids getting tongue-tied navigating the verse of “Role Model” – “You know he’s in it to see the summit/You know he’s in it to see the summit/To see the summit, to see summit” – before launching into its chorus of “Role role role model.” Repetition can serve rhythmic purpose, sure, but most of these songs are fairly benign and generic, with a cast of young characters in love, tearing up the city. Yes, it’s escapist, but Phoenix also seems to be re-packaging the same stories.
When all this glossy synth production comes together, what listeners are left with is a very empty experience. Previous albums had a more dynamic balance between rock and synthpop, whereas Ti Amo is sugary keys and dance beats as infinitum. Mars takes the idea of nostalgic Italian summers – interpreted through disco pop – and just peppers his carefree tracks with some key Italian phrases. Unrequited love on the title track devolves into exclamations like, “A disaster scenario/So don’t look at what you did/This melted Gelato” and “Love you! Ti amo! Je t’aime ! ¡Te quiero!,” even asking at one point “Champagne or Prosecco?”
Name-dropping Italian things doesn’t really translate into a substantive song, or album. But Phoenix, to be fair, have never been about substance. Their music is exciting, uplifting pop-rock. And Ti Amo has beautiful moments, such as the bass-heavy chorus on “Fior Di Latte,” the uncharacteristic 8-bit synths on “Lovelife” and the gloriously funky guitar/synth on “Goodbye Soleil.” But the shift away from the rockier aspects of their previous music makes Ti Amo sound indulgent to the point of gaudy. Phoenix may get a few good singles out of it, but Ti Amo threatens to be too sweet on a full listen-through.