Sugary is an often-used word when describing pop music. It’s apt when talking about the genre because it points to music that’s sticky, sweet, and easily digestible. It also expresses a certain emptiness. Much like your favorite candy bar, it gives you a quick high as opposed to the nutrient-dense building blocks you would get from a piece of meat or vegetables. I find it a little distressing then that sugary is the perfect word to use when describing Ti Amo, the sixth studio album from French pop-rock powerhouse Phoenix. Not only was the album actually inspired by sugar, but it also doesn’t quite have the substance of the band’s classic records.
Nearly 20 years into their career (weird to think, I know) does Phoenix have anything left to offer? During that time the Versailles band has churned out some of the catchiest new wave pop in recent memory. Light, airy, and unequivocally cool, the four-piece always had a way of turning crumbling relationships into the catchiest shit you’d ever heard.
Ti Amo (“I Love You” in Italian) finds the group at an awkward crossroads. Gone are the jangly guitars of 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That and the percussion-driven soft rock of the group’s 2009 smash Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Instead, the band doubles down on the synth-heavy path that they took for 2013’s Bankrupt!.
There are standouts for sure. Lead single “J-Boy” comes off as a sleeker version of the Bankrupt! hit “Entertainment.” The high-pitched synths and lurching bass of “Tuttifrutti” lend a groovy tropical vibe that’s as catchy as anything the group has released to this point. “Goodbye Soleil” finds the band paying homage to their French counterparts Daft Punk (lead guitarist Laurent Brancowitz used to gig with the members of the electronic duo) with a funk bass line and electric warble straight out of the duo’s “Something About Us.” Even “Ti Amo,” with some questionable lyrics (“open up your legs” and “don’t tell me no”), is too much fun to deny with its references to Buzzcocks and Beethoven.
Lyrically, the album doesn’t stray too far from the tried and true Phoenix subject matter: fleeting romance, surrealist imagery, and a dose nostalgia for sun-drenched vacations. More or less exactly where they left off on Bankrupt! songs like “Bourgeois” and “Oblique City.” All of it seems very on-brand for Phoenix, almost to a fault. The band reportedly recorded for thousands of hours in order to come up with the final ten-track, 36-minute runtime, and I was a bit disappointed that more risk-taking didn’t come out of all those hours of tinkering in the studio. Hell, if I had a formula as catchy and successful as Phoenix’s I might be hesitant to make a change too.
Phoenix have said the record is one of “simple, pure emotions: love, desire, lust, and innocence” and “European, Latin roots, and a fantasized version of Italy.” In the video for “Goodbye Soleil,” the group find themselves bumbling around an unnamed Italian city. They eat gelato, relax by the pool, and brush up on their Italian by reading the local newspaper. All these scenes are shot with a grainy flair that gives the video a hazy, romantic quality. As someone lucky enough to spend a couple of months in Rome, I got the chance to experience these lazy Italian days firsthand. Much like Italy is able to make mundane activities feel special, Phoenix is still able to find a spark that makes their time-tested formula feel magical again, if only sporadically. While it doesn’t hit the dizzying heights of previous records, Ti Amo is still a saccharine treat for anyone looking to satisfy their pop sweet tooth.