When Phoenix hit it big in 2009 with their hits “Lizstomania” and “1901” off the album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, there were a couple surprises in store for their newly-acquired legion of listeners. First, that the band had been around for quite a while – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was actually their fourth album (they released their debut United all the way back in 2000). Second, that the band were actually French, even though all of their songs are in English. This doesn’t sound too remarkable by itself, considering how many other bands have opted to sing in English to reach a larger audience, including Norway’s Kings of Convenience and Sweden’s the Hives. Even French electronic artists, including Justice Air and Daft Punk, have employed this strategy to notable Anglophonic success. Yet there seemed to be no indication that Phoenix hailed from central Europe. Even now, at least in the US, Phoenix seems to be the French indie rock band.
This makes it all the more ironic that Phoenix’s sixth studio album Ti Amo is their most European release to date, bursting at the seams with flavors of…Italy. Despite a tracklist that teases some of their French roots with titles like “Goodbye Soleil” and “Fleur De Lys,” the titles “Tuttifrutti,” “Fior Di Latte,” “Via Veneto,” and of course “Ti Amo,” are much more indicative of the album’s actual style. The band themselves even described the album as being about a “fantasized version of Italy: a lost paradise made of eternal Roman summers,” or in simpler terms, “summer and Italian discos.”
The disco part of this statement is apparent right off the bat with opening track “J-Boy,” which is driven by a kickdrum and snare dance beat with at least two layers of synthesizers, and even applies subtle autotune to frontman Thomas Mars’s vocals. The result is Phoenix’s most blatant foray into synthpop to date.
This trip to the disco continues for much of the rest of the album, making Ti Amo arguably Phoenix’s danciest album. The title track opens with a funky bassline before exploding into a synthesizer melody that reappears during its chorus, and “Tuttifrutti” has an 80s-inspired feel thanks to the effects used on its prominent bassline. Admittedly, there’s a lull in the center of the album, but Phoenix have never been ones to shy away from tucking some of their stronger songs into the latter halves of their releases (see “Bourgeois” and “Lasso”). “Fleur de Lys” edges into disco rock, like a less frantic !!!, and the stomping beat, scattered synthesizers, and occasional electric guitar riffs of “Telefono” make it a contender for Phoenix’s best closing track. If the mission statement of Ti Amo was to make a fun and summery throwback dance album, these tracks definitely fit the bill.
The Italian part of the “summer and Italian discos” statement is more obvious. For example, “Telefono,” a track that seems to be about Mars’s long distance relationship with his wife Sofia Coppola, has so many Italian phrases in its verses and simulated phone conversations that you’ll need to whip out a dictionary or Google Translate. “Via Veneto,” which sounds like Phoenix’s take on Beach House’s “Levitation,” is more in Italian than English. Yet it also wouldn’t be a Franco-Italian album without overt romanza or attempts at being sensuale. The title track, for instance, includes Mars singing “I love you” in four different languages, before adding in a near-indecipherable falsetto “open up your legs.” Meanwhile, “Fior Di Latte” will disappoint you if you expected a song about a variant of mozzarella cheese: the refrain of “we’re meant to get it on” spells out its intentions. Despite this line, the song is a far cry from Marvin Gaye, thanks to its explosive earworm of a chorus. It could have used a lesson in smoothness from the band’s early single “If I Ever Feel Better.” Ti Amo may be a little blunt at times, but then again, Phoenix’s lyrics were never really the main draw— just try singing along with “Lisztomania.”
For all its trips to different times and places, Ti Amo unmistakably remains a Phoenix album. In the end, it seems only a slight step away from its 2013 predecessor Bankrupt!, which already flirted with the synthpop that Ti Amo dives into. This results in some interplay between the two – for instance, even the standout “Tuttifrutti” sounds like a combination of Bankrupt!’s “SOS in Bel Air” and “Trying to be Cool.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Bankrupt! was an overall good release, but it’s also somewhat surprising that after a four year gap, the main differences between the two would seem so superficial. Ti Amo is therefore best left enjoyed on its own, heading to those Italian discos without looking back.