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The sixth album by Phoenix sounds like the perfect soundtrack to come from a nation that, despite everything going on elsewhere in the world, still seems to possess hope and joy in great abundance.
The world seemed to breathe a sigh of relief after the French Presidential election in May. However, when the four school friends from Versailles (Christian Mazzalai, Laurent Brancowitz, Thomas Mars & Deck d’Arcy), now in their early forties, began writing and recording the songs that would make up Ti Amo (10 of them, as always) it didn’t look like they were in step with the national mood at all.
They started work in 2014, shortly after, Charlie Hebdo happened. Then the Bataclan happened when they were in the studio, just a 20-minute walk from the terrorist attack on the concert hall.
“There was this feeling the world as we knew it was collapsing before our eyes,” explains guitarist Laurent Brancowitz. But strangely, the gloom was not being reflected in the songs the band were writing. “To our great amazement, amid the geopolitical tension and general darkness, the music we were creating was sounding so joyful, romantic and carefree.”
They came together in a new, unfamiliar studio space, as they do for each new record. “Having our own studio would be a danger for us – the end,” bassist Deck d’Arcy speculates. This time they occupied the top floor of La Gaîté Lyrique in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, a former theatre that was refurbished as a centre for arts and digital creatives in the late 2000s.
Mazzalai, Brancowitz and d’Arcy began composing together, with Mars joining them from his home in Manhattan for 10 days out of every month. There they kept a strict 9-to-5 discipline for months, unlike past sessions of night work. They recorded the whole process – hundreds of hours of music. The favoured songs that eventually emerged featured sparkling synths dominating over guitars. The guitars that were present were often altered electronically.
J-Boy, the first single, is an acronym for “Just Because Of You”, the repeated phrase of a digital love song that twinkles with the unhurried bliss of a long night on a dancefloor. There’s a disco feel to Tuttifrutti and a cocktail hour sunset sound to Goodbye Soleil. And title track Ti Amo melds a funky bassline to bold synths with an irresistible energy, while Thomas Mars sings of gelato, champagne and prosecco.
Ti Amo (Italian for “I love you”) is a decidedly apolitical record, though not being political is its own statement in 2017.
While the record still sounds positively French, Brancowitz explains that “It's an album about our European, latin roots, our fantasized version of Italy. A lost paradise made of eternal Roman summers (hyper-light, hyper-clarity, pistachio gelato), juke-boxes on the beach, Monica Vitti and Marcello Mastroiani, fearless desire and Antique marble.”
Their collaborator Pierrick Devin joined them as they explored (Devin would record the album, co-producing it with the band and mixing part of it alongside Michael Brauer), and their longtime producer, Philippe Zdar, was never far away, giving them special guidance during his studio visits.
Spending their days in Paris, reading the news, dreaming of Italy, they could be in no doubt that they were far removed from the preoccupations of the rest of their country. But Mars wouldn’t call his band’s work escapism as such. “I think you can tell it’s a 2017 record but there is this detachment and distance,” he says. “To me that’s not denial or escapism. It’s conscious, it’s what music and art are supposed to be: a world of possibilities.”
Brancowitz agrees that although they knew that the songs felt strange for the times, it was impossible to resist them. “At first there was this slight feeling of guilt, before we understood that abandoning ourselves to the healing power of music was exactly what we had to do.”
Now, in slightly more positive times, everyone can enjoy Ti Amo’s bright, summery sounds for what they are. The album sits comfortably beside Phoenix’s finest work, such as their breakthrough fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. A gold-seller in multiple countries, with a platinum single in the shape of 1901, it’s won a Grammy in 2009 for Best Alternative Music Album and is the one that put the band where they are today: adored festival headliners known for their showmanship and Mars’s frequent forays into the crowds.
Phoenix shouldn’t be missed at this summer’s festival appearances, which include top slots at Glastonbury, New York’s Gorvernors Ball and Japan’s Summer Sonic.
If the sun is shining, Phoenix have got the right songs for the occasion.