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“Get Lucky”, the much-hyped first single from Random Access Memory, feels pretty good. It brings actual Nile Rodgers out of mothballs in its attempt to sound exactly like a Studio 54-era 12”. It’s destined to be a ubiquitous hit, because it’s more or less all hook, earnestly sung by an obviously real, live person. But if there’s nothing better on the album, it’ll come as a mild disappointment specifically because it’s so ruthlessly streamlined. It downplays the hint of futurism that once made the band a distinctive interpreter of old sounds. The single goes down so easy that it practically doesn’t exist. The ease itself is telling. Disco, from the depths of its dishonor, nudged all the way back in half steps, as a cutesy robot revival, as a counterintuitive element in our early-00s punk rock. Now, you don’t have to do anything novel to it to make it palatable. “Get Lucky” definitely doesn’t try to. Somehow, once again, uncomplicated disco just sounds like the most universal music possible. It’s first lines? “Like the legend of the Phoenix...”
Phoenix’s rise to big-deal rock band headliner status involved more active tweaking, not just perfecting the proof of their distillation to some pure old thing. Their early records are still shockingly unfussy in their Hall and Oates-y-ness. There’s no tasteful haze, no abstracting digital trickery, just earnest blue-eyed soul singing and soft rock bounce. If Toro Y Moi, or somebody, made Alphabetical two years from now it’d probably be hailed as the end point of an obvious arc, a thought finally completed. But it’s a funny starting point towards the slick, car commercial-strength New Wave that made them legitimately huge. You can’t quite reduce the hits on the band’s biggest record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix to the aloof Strokes copying they’re sometimes accused of, and it’s not just because they don’t quite read as pure rock n’ roll. “1901” and “Lisztomania” would have been massive, career-reviving singles for the actual Strokes. It’d have meant that band was willing to clean up, write enormous hooks, and stop singing through a megaphone. They’re songs that felt instantly like a precariously occupied pinnacle. Stuff that sounds so easy is pretty hard to make.