When they say It’s Never Been Like That, they mean it.“This was about starting all over,” says Thomas Mars, Phoenix’s photogenic mouthpiece, stumbling across a cross fader in their Versailles studio, “it was about making ourselves scared again.” If there is precisely the kind of scrubbed-up freshness you might expect to hear on a particularly striking debut album to the four-strong Frenchmen’s third record, there is a reason for that. They attacked it as though they had never recorded together before. But there is no accounting for musical telepathy. Something gelled. It’s Never Been Like That? It’s never been sunnier, stronger, more coherent, thoughtful and alive. Welcome to the masterpiece that Phoenix have always threatened to make.
It’s just a simple tale of rebooting, really. Four boys with brotherly love decamped to Berlin last summer to channel the energy of the last truly Bohemian European city and to refract it through their uniquely Gallic gaze. Such is the synchronicity of the boys’ unique mindset they set themselves the giddy task of recording without a note of the record written. Without any prior consideration as to what it might feel or sound like. Because their relationship with one another stretches all the way back to High School, they could afford the risk.They entered the recording process determined to find the energy of a first take. There would be none of the luxurious soundscaping they had perfected to monumental effect on Alphabetical or its wildly eclectic but strangely coherent predecessor, United. This time it was all about the rawness. “There is a brutality to the record,” says Thomas, “which I was surprised that I liked so much and even more surprised that it sounded so us.” It’s Never Been Like That was conceived with a live mentality. If at first it sounds breezily, crazily immediate, that vigor should not detract from its deeper, more lasting residual air of a band at the peak of their powers, both musically and intellectually. There is little in the way of the studied air of its precursors.
Jump out first cut “Long Distance Call” lends the album its be-damned-with-what-went-before title. A bracing guitar intro segues into a stop start verse that is punctuated by one of those keyboard motifs that Phoenix seem so effortlessly to dust off from a synthesized archive and bring swinging back into modernity. The chorus is a defiant plea for their intention of starting over. The mosh pit ought to be alerted. Other highlights of the record include the buoyant springtime jangle of “Consolation Prizes”, the bold opening salvo referencing their own French-ness,“Napoleon Says”, and the aptly titled “Second To None”. This record sounds terrific loud. It has a jump-around zeal that previous Phoenix albums have only hinted at. It is both succinct and playful. Oh, and if it is a fashionable record, then it is fashionable only by accident and that is only because integrity is fashionable once more.
The musical playfulness that saw them swapping between new hip hop technical noise and a luscious orchestration, between fluttering house timbres and direct rock action on their opening two shots has been compressed into a more direct sound on album number 3. But the spirit of Phoenix and their misadventures discoloring the rulebook of what pop music can represent remains.
The record represents a kind of hard won freedom for band and sound alike. They found it within days of settling into Berlin. In a huge abandoned State Radio complex in the former Eastern sector - “with just the ghosts of some of the communist spirit left in the building” – they were able to release something and worry less about the intricacies of their sound. For now Phoenix are back home in Versailles, rehearsing for the live debut of their most alive record. “It is going to be fun,” assures the gentlemanly frontman, understating wildly. It is going to be so much more than that. It is going to be the rebirth of one of the few unique propositions in contemporary pop. Phoenix has once again risen from their own ashes.