With their deserved breakout finally coming after the success of 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and the album’s signature tack ‘1901’, Phoenix’s latest record, Ti Amo, comes as an aerated post-dinner treat with ambitious conceptual designs. Ti Amo exists in an idealised vision of Italy, complete with rolling hills blanketed with olive gardens and scoopfuls of sumptuous gelato, the primary culinary inspiration for Thomas Mars and co. Geographical and cultural romanticisation may seem naive in the current geopolitical landscape, but under Phoenix’s measured guidance Ti Amo is spectacularly tasteful- think more Antonio Carluccio and Andrea Pirlo and less Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip to Italy.
Italy is renowned for its cultural exuberance and that notion is sewed into Phoenix’s meticulous 10-track construct. The synths are light and evanescent, fading in and out of earshot like a mirage and Thomas Mars lyrics themselves are intensely capable of transforming the mood in seconds. ‘Keep it quiet, go steady,’ sings Mars nonchalantly on ‘Fior Di Latte’, ‘Let’s rip it all to confetti’. Despite the album’s preferred destination being highlighted throughout, the overarching theme of love and its understanding in any language too hints intelligently at love’s binding qualities in such divisive times.
And as well as the call for unity, Phoenix are quick to explore those same notions of divisiveness. The punchy electro of album opener ‘J-Boy’ curdles European idealism with uncomfortable snapshots of a ‘homeless girl being robbed’ and ‘kamikazes bombarding an already hopeless world’. And on ‘Role Model’, Mars hints at the ulterior motives of its central character, who’s obsessed with ‘reaching the summit’ rather than actually committing wholeheartedly to an admirable service. Equally, Phoenix manage to balance melancholic tones with their undoubted coolness. The Daft Punk-baiting riff of ‘Goodbye Soleil’ provides bilingual bliss as Mars switches between English and French in an attempt to win over a girl. On ‘Fleur de Lys’, a catchy ’80s yacht rock number, Mars portrays himself as an voracious ‘Siberian Tiger’ and manages to not sound foolish.
There’s a lot to decipher on Ti Amo, but the simpler, straightforwardly romantic declarations often provide the most joy. Phoenix emit a coolness that many aspire to and when it’s fully on display, it’s a sight to behold. But then again, the execution of more testing topics earns praise in its fluency. Even when Phoenix pushes the album’s loose concept to its edge, the poppier, easily replayable feel reigns Ti Amo back in without exhausting the listener. Ti Amo is both as bold as its societal assertions and the Italian flavours that fuel it.