I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t sold on Alpha Zulu on the first listen — it was the album I neither expected, nor wanted — but like a creeping vine, it pulled me in the longer I sat with it. Alpha Zulu is French indie band Phoenix’s seventh studio album and was recorded in the Palais du Louvre. The album is just as extravagant as the recording location might suggest, delving into the exuberance and irregularity of the Baroque. The LP is bold: it sets off at a blistering pace, refusing to slow even for a moment, dragging listeners along at breakneck speeds through a landscape of vibrant colors and new sonic textures.
The record begins with the titular track “Alpha Zulu” — a little heavy on the synth and strange vocal inflections, it makes for a questionable opening. The production is sickly-sweet, enough to make your teeth ache, and the excess of digital instrumentation makes this a difficult track to love. One thing “Alpha Zulu” does well, however, is grab attention — it is catchy and fast-paced, giving listeners a good idea of what is to come in the next 35 minutes.
A stellar feature by Ezra Koenig on “Tonight” is a throwback to an era of indie-pop spearheaded by Vampire Weekend and Phoenix. It feels nostalgic rather than like a pitiful grasp for days past; bass groove moving in tandem with a signature Vampire Weekend guitar tone makes this track an instant favorite.
Bold and rapturous, “After Midnight” is a track that excites. It gallops along at top speeds — electronic drums and keys bounce over the staccato chug of a buzzy synthesizer, delivering the perfect amount of energy for a headlining festival set. It gushes with enthusiasm and zeal, as light and sound seem to bounce off of a kaleidoscopic production.
“All Eyes On Me” and “My Elixir” are fairly disappointing tracks. “All Eyes On Me” is, for lack of a better word, annoying — I experience an involuntary eye-roll or two during every listen. Heavy synth and electronic instrumentation make this song the least listenable. “My Elixir” is certainly the lesser of two evils — it’s boring, but not outright terrible. It neither gives nor takes anything from the album and quickly slips from memory as an afterthought. It is the lowest point of energy on the album, and feels like Phoenix’s enthusiasm is tapering out into a rocky comedown.
Phoenix’s lyricism can be slippery — lead singer Thomas Mars is less of a storyteller and more of a vibe curator, occasionally letting his lyrics descend into utter gibberish. Boundary breaking as ever, the lyricism on this project holds a mystique and abstractness that prevents you from finding focus. The songs within this project are connected by their experimental nature and high energy, loosely flowing from track to track. The song “Artefact” is so special because it is a moment of clarity and vulnerability amongst the chaos. The intention of the track is a surprisingly legible story of marital troubles — Mars sings “A piece of me that’s still intact, yeah / I’m looking for an Artefact / What part of me can still attract you?” It’s about intentionally hurting another person without knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. There are traces of bitterness that contrast wonderfully with the saccharine playfulness of the instrumentation.
At its best, the record has an unstoppable red-eyed enthusiasm — 35 minutes blaze past the listener on a record that refuses to settle — yet I can’t help but wish that Phoenix had taken a moment to slow their pace or contrast their wildness with some mellow tones. However, it is undoubtedly a solid comeback for a band that has been gone so long. Phoenix pioneers into new sonic space on Alpha Zulu, but there are flashes of familiarity among the tracks — buzzy bass, punchy digital drum lines and Mars’s signature upper-range whine remind listeners why they liked Phoenix so much in the first place. Buoyant, bubblegum indie-pop is rarely as experimental and well-expressed as this project, but Phoenix is able to nod to their past all while pressing forward into new territory. Throughout Alpha Zulu there is very little coherence, but the chaos and disarray feel intentional and necessary to the project. For a band of lesser musical prowess, pulling off an album that threatens to spin out of control could prove itself impossible, but Phoenix keeps a tight hold on Alpha Zulu, making this project truly memorable.
Daily Arts Writer Claire Sudol can be reached at email@example.com.