Phoenix appears as a group of court musicians halfway through Sofia Coppola's pretty, if forgettable biopic Marie Antoinette. They don't play for the proper formal court, but inside the queen's private hidden retreat. They're a guilty pleasure inside a guilty pleasure. Two hundred and thirty years later, they're inhabiting the past again: their album's named for one of Europe's great musicians-for-hire, and it contains a song, “Liztomania,” named for another. And since their polished debut album, United, Phoenix has soundtracked runway shows and become a favorite for petite bourgeois magazines. But this record, like 2006's It's Never Been Like That, shows an understanding of pop music that feels complex and nuanced. They may not have possess a dark underbelly, but Phoenix discover ways to temper their sweetness with their natural sense of reserve and detachment.
While their last record, It's Never Been Like That, played like a rougher version of their light-as-Air French pop, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix swings back slightly, polishing the brutishness and semi-volatility that defined their previous album. This record pushes forward with bluster and exuberance, frontloaded with its three best tracks: "Fences," "1901" and "Lizstomania." Each song flaunts their strongest traits: sparkling, rich production, ebullient keyboard melodies, charging tom-toms. Compare the precise stabs and strums of "1901" to the indistinct muddle of "Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)." The latter track's slow burn blends each part into every other one, and the result sounds like the crescendo of a Phoenix song stretched out over four minutes. "1901," though, puts every sound, every instrument is in its right place—when the synths hit, they're perfectly framed. When the guitars chime in between the verse and the chorus, you notice their entrance. In all, they're better at playing the mature pop band they've become than the rock band they want to be.
These decisions make up for Mars' thin, unsteady voice, which the band works miracles on inside the studio. These vocal shortcomings might have passed by unnoticed if Phoenix hadn't posted the multitrack masters for "1901" on their website. Isolated, Mars' voice sounds reedy and pubescent, and across the album, it develops a nasty habit of breaking toward the end of every line. But together Phoenix smooth over their problems and instead emphasize his lithe phrasing, which he trades off with album’s keyboards, each player knowing when to come forward and retreat.
Age, history, and time are still the band's main concerns—Phoenix has always made music for youth. The best example remains their first single "Too Young," which played during the karaoke dance scene in Lost In Translation. But Mars and the band observe youth like a curious artifact. "Remember when 21 was young?" Mars asks over "Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)"'s warm, humming keyboards. He says something similar on It’s Never Been Like That's "Long Distance Call" (“I remember this young guy died and I took his place”), but he doesn't sound regretful on either track. Elsewhere on Wolfgang he dismisses age altogether ("1901"), or, in a similar sentiment, reads forever as "a long, long time," ("Lasso"). Rome is "2000 years...in a trashcan." It probably has something to do with where the band wrote the songs, visiting different European cities and even renting out the studio of 19th century Romantic painter Théodore Géricault. That fascination both with the figures and events of history and with the Earth's immense timeline, means that, for Mars, 21 years is no different from 2000, making Mars both “So sentimental / Not sentimental, no,” as he begins “Liztomania.”
Maybe it’s attributing too much to their Gallic background, but there’s undeniable sangfroid here: pop music is associated with youth everywhere, but somehow, in Europe, that doesn't mean it's transient or ephemeral. Perhaps this sense of pop, the notion that it's as much a part of music history as anything, renders Phoenix's goofy album title only half-ironic—in acknowledging the "2000 years ... in a trashcan" that came before them, Phoenix silently nods to the next 2000.