By Faith Vara
Album: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Release Date: May 25, 2009
It’s crazy to think that 2009 was a whole decade ago. This is the year Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” was the biggest song of the year and “Avatar” ruled the silver screen.
It was also the year French indie-pop band, Phoenix, released Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth studio album. During this time, synth-pop and electro-rock bands were all the rage. Indie-pop staples like MGMT, M83 and Passion Pit fused funk, electronica and soft rock in a way that was appealing to young listeners.
Phoenix also joined the indie-pop movement, and along with records like M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix sits among the very best from acts of that era. So let’s take a look back at this decade-defining album 10 years later.
While the band’s previous works slowly built an underground following, the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is what finally drew the attention of a more mainstream audience. This is an album full of tunes that are as romantic and danceable as anything from a classic John Hughes soundtrack, yet totally enigmatic at the same time.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix tightened up Phoenix’s rock chops and heightened their synth-pop peaks. Their ambiguous lyrics, laced with references to old world Europe and romantic metaphors, brought a charming glamour to their bubbly sound, and listeners latched onto their instantly memorable hooks.
Most everybody knows their song “Lisztomania,” but how did a track whose title is derived from Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt, become an undisputed indie rock classic? First, start with the song’s bouncing guitar line, which is both precise and catchy. Then add a set of dizzying drum rhythms, and a chorus supported by muted keys that allows for maximum singalong capacity. Finally, construct a bridge with zigzagging synths and head-bobbing melodies, and you have one heck of an indie hit on your hands.
After that near-perfect indie tune, “1901” enters the fold. This was the first single released for the album, and it’s easy to see why listeners instantly gravitated towards it. Backed with chugging hi-hats that sound like shakers, a resolute guitar line and fuzzy synths, “1901” sees frontman Thomas Mars at his most exuberant.
The middle section of the album presents a change in pace that wasn’t commonly seen in the late 2000s indie-pop scene. “Love Like a Sunset, Pt.1” and “Love Like a Sunset, Pt. 2” helps balance this energetic and fast-paced record by offering a few minutes of tranquility.
While placing a two-part, largely instrumental pair of tracks in the middle of a hooky indie-pop album might seem unnecessary to some, “Love Like a Sunset” can be seen as a vehicle for Phoenix to prove they’re capable of making something a bit more complex and unconventional. It’s a cross section of the album’s sleek musical backing. The sharp guitars snake, the synths glow and Mars’ vocals ascend with pomp.
While it’s obvious that Phoenix excels at exciting and catchy choruses, they should also be praised for their pre-chorus effectiveness. On “Lasso,” the air-punching starts at the onset of its pre-chorus, and it’s just one of several instances where Phoenix rolls out the ramp for the chorus’ takeoff. For example, the driving pre-chorus on “Countdown” outshines its actual chorus, leaving the still catchy refrain sounding a tad deflated compared to its precedenting lines.
Repetition and wordplay are also some of the band’s strong suits. “Rome” has the same kind of supposed dim-witted repetition that makes some rock fans sneer at pop songs, but Phoenix proves the point that pop stars have been trying to make—lyric repetition is basically dopamine for the brain and shouldn’t be fought against.
With Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix achieved heaps of commercial and critical acclaim. They appeared on Saturday Night Live a month before the album’s release, purely off the popularity of lead single “1901,” and the LP landed in the top 10 of many end-of-year album lists. It also won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 2010, and its songs were everywhere.
Tracks off the album were featured in ads for Playstation, car commercials, video games like Guitar Hero and TV shows like “Gossip Girl”. To this day, Phoenix’s live set contains more selections from their 2009 album than any other album to date. Their two subsequent albums, Bankrupt! and Ti Amo, are pleasant enough, but neither have had the staying power or pop cultural impact of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
“Lisztomania” and “1901” alone would have carved Phoenix’s name in the indie rock canon. Yet, the individual pieces on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix shine most brilliantly as a collective whole. Ten years later, the album still sounds like a wonder; an effortless classic, as quirky as it is mature.