Written by Christian Bischoff
Phoenix’s sixth studio album in 17 years is their most romantic yet, a lush soft-pop masterpiece that manages to marry the spirit of Italo disco with modern synth pop without sounding overly kitschy. Ti Amo is an album handcrafted for the summer, meant to evoke the bright Mediterranean sun. If there’s a levity that seems strangely out of step with contemporary Europe, it’s purposeful.
In the years since the band’s 2013 release Bankrupt!, France has experienced a rash of terror attacks that have spread fear and unrest throughout Europe and the West. In France’s latest presidential election, Marine Le Pen managed to win an unprecedented number of votes for her proto-facist National Front party, campaigning on a fierce Euro-rejectionist platform marked echoed by several right wing groups across the EU.
During the infamous attacks at the Bataclan, Phoenix’s lead guitarist, Christian Mazzalai, was trapped in a recording studio in Paris (where the band had been working on their album) after security forces shut down the city. In a recent in interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mazzalai described the process behind recording Ti Amo. “We were looking for a lost world.”
Ti Amo is nostalgia for a paradise that never existed, an imagined Italy seen through the rose-colored glasses of memory. In some way, a fascination with Mediterranean life seems to be creeping into media’s momentary zeitgeist. Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s hit Netflix show, spent much of its second season filming throughout Italy, and even featured a failed love affair with an idealized (if verging on fetishized) version of an Italian woman. In Ti Amo, there’s a similar romanticizing of the country, and the promise of easy days in the sun, endless romantic pursuits, and gelatto afternoons.
The album’s lead single “J-Boy” opens with pitched-down video game synth before exploding into the track’s driving beat and frontman Thomas Mars’ layered vocals. It’s a strange love story in classic Phoenix style, detailing some dystopian world in lyrics that convey just enough narrative to direct you, but not enough to make sense of everything that’s going on. It’s only a brief note of darkness on an album that centered, as it’s name suggests, on love.
“I’ll say Ti Amo til we get along” sings Mars on the album’s title track, a song the band declared was “about the tragedy of unreciprocated love and desire.” The album follows in the band’s progression of increasingly synth heavy work. The influence of Italo Disco pioneers like Franco Battiato (credited as an influence on the band’s last album, Bankrupt!, and referenced in the band’s latest release) and Ryan Paris is evident, with synths taking center stage throughout the album’s ten tracks.
“Fior di Latte” is the Ti Amo’s standout track, a palette cleanser whose guitar intro almost suggests a pitched up version of Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot.” The song, named for a milky white gelato in its purest form (just cream and sugar, nothing else), breaks into an endlessly catchy “We’re meant to get it on” repeated over and over again until the airy ballad “Lovelife” begins. “Goodbye Soleil,” the album’s second single, features a synth riff that wouldn’t be out of place in an educational video from 1980, but quickly gets layred with chunky guitars and Mars’ lightly echoed vocals.
Aside from a much welcomed appearance from a Fela Kuti beat on “Fleur de Lys,” the album is intensely European in a way other Phoenix albums haven’t been in the past. Mars croons in French, Italian, English, and Spanish throughout the album, and references everything from Rome’s famous Via Veneto to Châteldon sparkling water. More than that, it’s perhaps their most personal cut. “Telefono,” the album’s final track, is an exploration of the difficulty of long distance relationships, with more than a passing reference to Sofia Coppola, famous filmmaker and Mars’ spouse. “Come va a Hollywood?/ Oh you’re staying a little longer/ well, but I thought you’d be done by September” Mars sings, detailing longing and disappointment. “Innamorato [in love]/ Agitato [agitated]/ Watch her movie debut.”
Ti Amo is, in the face of an increasingly uncertain world, a bright moment of triumph. Phoenix conjures joy and romance with a skill and ease not easily afforded. There’s an easy earnestness here, a genuine hopefulness you’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere else. While there are no career defining hits like Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s “Lisztomania” or “1901,” this is the band’s strongest offering in the years since their 2009 breakthrough success.
Phoenix, ‘Ti Amo’ Rating: 9 out of 10