Phoenix have always made everything they do look absurdly easy. Whether it’s swooping in on the trends of mid-2000s indie and turning it into pop gold or incorporating harpsichords in their backing band, each piece of their artistry is executed with confoundingly effortless panache. Perhaps this is one of the advantages of being from Versailles. So when Ti Amo, their sixth full-length, was announced as a concept album about having fun in Italy for a summer, it seemed like the group had maybe taken it too easy. But quite the contrary, the finished product is among the best works of their career.
And after a record like their 2013 effort Bankrupt!, it’s pretty clear why they needed to cut loose and write songs about gelato. That album was tortuously overproduced, where each glimmer of their normally pristine pop instincts was buried beneath mountains of synth-backwash. Just getting through lead single “Entertainment” is an exhausting undertaking, let alone finding your way through a subsequent 40 minutes of the same sonic palette.
Fortunately, they found seemingly limitless inspiration in the palette of taste for Ti Amo. Calling the album confectionary would be putting it mildly, song titles like “Tuttifrutti” and “Fior di Latte” speak for themselves (the latter of which I feel confident in saying is the first pop-rock song of the millennium about fine cream-cheese). Lead singer Thomas Mars peppers in lyrics from start to finish that are intensely evocative, from choosing between “champagne or prosecco” while leaning against the jukebox in the title track to his staccato delivery of the aforementioned “Fior di Latte.” For a band that have long been known as wilfully obtuse, their ability to conjure a full sensory overload on each track is remarkable.
The album is delectable from start to finish, but it is no contest whatsoever to declare the opening track “J-Boy” as the succulent cherry on top of their sundae. Phoenix gives the listener exactly nine seconds of a fake start before the beat drops into a lush pop fantasia. The percussion ticks in time like clockwork beneath a twinkling synth line that seems to arpeggiate its way skyward all the way to the heavens. Here Mars’ lyrics are more cryptic, with vague dystopian references proving an intriguing new dimension for a song that on the surface sounds like the sonic equivalent of taking MDMA and dancing inside a cotton-candy machine.
As is the case with some of their other work, the strength of “J-Boy” serves to undermine some of the weaker tracks. “Fleur de Lys” is built around a jangly guitar line that sounds a little too similar to late ’70s era Fela Kuti, which is a questionable veer to the left away from both the sonic-scape and themes at play so cohesively wrought everywhere else. “Role Model” also feels a bit out of place, with a melodic sensibility that is far less robust than its brethren.
If anything, the extreme dedication to Phoenix’s decadent concept (which is, in all likelihood, based on their most recent vacation) is the root cause of the album’s flaws. Contrary to popular belief, there is indeed such a thing as ‘one too many glasses of prosecco’ or ‘one too many bowlfuls of tiramisu after a four-course dinner.’ Songs like the aforementioned “J-Boy” and “Goodbye Soleil” perfectly demonstrate why an Italian summer was an inspiration goldmine for the band, but on other tracks it immediately feels forced.
Yet in stark contrast to this point, the high concept also serves as the record’s greatest strength. It is through this dedication to all things Italo-discotheque that Phoenix have found themselves again. Not since their iconic 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has their songcraft been so immediately affecting and memorable. They are clearly having fun spinning ditties about eating frutti di mare by the beach, and their epicurean fantasies are infectious; we too start to take as much enjoyment in the idea of Mars and his wife Sofia Coppola being gourmands by the sea as they surely did living it themselves.
Is Ti Amo their best work? Far from it, that title will perhaps always belong to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. But like the dizzying array of sweets so vividly described on record, the album is a delight; a real treat to kick off your summer.
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