Phoenix was nearly a decade ahead of the curve when they were releasing synthy, ’80s-inspired hits like “If I Ever Feel Better” and “Too Young” off their first album United in 2000. Now, almost 20 years later, their style has been replicated countless times by other musicians of varying popularity. They were undoubtedly innovators in the revival of synth-pop, but pioneering a genre’s commercial comeback — though ’80s synth-pop never really died — comes with its downsides. The sound that initially made them so fresh and inspired others to take a more synth-oriented approach is now stale. With Ti Amo, Phoenix dives deeper into a strictly pop, synth-laden sound that’s no longer as captivating as it was with past albums like United and It’s Never Been Like That.
In 2009, their decade-long sonic progression accumulated into a masterpiece: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album filled with indie pop perfection. After releasing such a gem, they found themselves in a tough situation: Over the previous three albums, they fine tuned their sound and grew into a band capable of creating such a stellar album, one that would seem impossible to follow. Like any artist following a masterpiece, they would have to change their sound without abandoning what made them so influential in the first place. And, with other contemporaries imitating their style, sounding original would be impossible. Wolfgang did wonders for indie pop; it also set the bar unrealistically high for Phoenix’s next releases.
Bankrupt!, their follow up to Wolfgang, was by no means a failure, even though it drifted away from their understated style of past albums. In my opinion, it did the whole ‘synth-pop revival’ shtick better than most of their pop contemporaries like The 1975 and Sky Ferreira. But having the misfortune of following a contemporary classic, it failed to live up to its high expectations. Four years later, Ti Amo only drifts further away from their unique brand of indie pop.
Phoenix’s sound has always been clean and refined, staying organic and never overly processed. They introduced heavier reverb on Bankrupt!, relying more on complex processing and studio effects. But on Ti Amo, these artificial elements play an ever bigger role and dominate the sound — all subtlety is lost. “Tuttifrutti,” one of the album’s catchiest tracks, begins with a flashy, fast-paced synth intro followed by Thomas Mars’s falsetto, all drenched in reverb and studio manipulation. The heavy processing works here; the song is naturally catchy enough that its inorganic sound doesn’t detract. But after 36 minutes, the dense layers of effects are bloated and suffocating. And by Ti Amo’s closer, “Telefono,” a strong song on its own, I found myself craving the simpler sound I grew to love on previous albums.
“Fior di Latte,” which has the making of a summer chart-topper, shows Phoenix can still pack a ton of emotion into a song. The heavy synths and soft vocals evoke passion, but Mars’s weak lyrics feel cringeworthy at times. He moans, “Oooooh, we’re meant to get it on” throughout the chorus, and it doesn’t feel as sexy as he likely intended it to be — probably the first time any French singer has been considered “not sexy.” Ti Amo’s lyrics flirt with themes of heartbreak and lust, though only at the surface, never really saying anything poetic. Mars sings on the titular track, “Love you! Ti amo! Je t’aime! Te quiero! / Open up your legs.” I’m not sure what he was going for here, but it’s kind of disgusting. He ends up sounding like a multilingual creep instead of an international lover.
Almost every song — with a few exceptions, like the disappointing “Ti Amo” and the quiet “Via Veneto” — could have been a standalone single. Individually, the songs are catchy and vibrant, perfect for sweaty summer nights. And this makes Ti Amo so conflicting; even though most of the songs are damn good, listening to Ti Amo as a whole is more laborious than pleasurable. When “Telefono” fades out underwhelmingly, I don’t feel the need to go back to the start — hearing the opener “J-Boy”’s drum kit intro would just irritate me, even though this song is pop gold.
Unlike It’s Never Been Like That and Wolfgang, Ti Amo isn’t a breath of fresh air; ultimately, it sounds like other contemporary pop music. It’s ironic to consider this a put-down, since they were immensely influential in shaping indie pop throughout this decade. Phoenix by all means shouldn’t be weighed down by their past successes. And unlike The Strokes, whose first album’s perfection would doom the rest of their discography, Phoenix has grown and changed throughout their career. But I’ll always be longing for another masterpiece, and I don’t think that’s an unfair standard to hold them to.