According to ancient Roman legend, emperor Nero played the fiddle while the city burned around him. Thankfully, not everyone is like Nero.
When the terrorist attacks happened in Paris in November 2015, the French alt-rock band Phoenix was in the middle of recording its sixth studio album. And they weren’t sure they wanted to continue working on it in the midst of the tragedies.
“There was a period of just a few hours where we questioned ourselves,”
bassist Deck D’Arcy says. “So many people were suffering around us, and we were doing this light music that could sound a bit summery.”
In the end, the quartet — best known for its 2009 hit singles “1901” and “Lisztomania” — decided to continue working on the album, and almost two years later, it will finally come out on Friday, June 9. Called Ti Amo, it’s a record that conjures fantasies of sultry Italian summers spent sipping chilled Prosecco, splashing around in ornate fountains, and dancing the night away listening to Italo disco. It is filled with syncopated rhythms and sweeping synths, and many of the lyrics focus on topics like love and lust. “Ti Amo” is a dancefloor burner about unquenched desire, and“J-Boy” — which stands for “Just Because Of You” — is a bouncy, mid-tempo track about the lengths a man will go to for romance. “Put two and two together / We’ll make it last forever,” frontman Thomas Mars pleads in the album’s lead single. “Just because of you / These things I have to go through.”
There’s also a strong Italian vibe to the 10-track album, which references staple foods — like gelato, Tutti frutti, and Fior di latte, a mozzarella-like cheese — landmarks, such as Rome’s posh Via Veneto, around which Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was set, and legendary singer-songwriters, like Franco Battiato and Lucio Battisti.
Phoenix’s guitarists — brothers Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai — spent their summers in Italy as children, and over the last few years, the band’s been listening to a lot of Italo disco, along with Battiato and Battisti’s back catalogs. In fact, even Mars — who normally sings in English — sang portions of the album in Italian.
“It’s probably something we had in our DNA for a long time,” D’Arcy says.
If it sounds weird that a French band is suddenly playing Italian tunes, you’re probably forgetting that the two countries share a border — and much more, D’Arcy says.
“France and Italy are not that different,” he explains. “We are a Latin country. The Roman antiquities are strong, even in France. … What we do in this album, it’s not about italy. …It’s just the fantasy we have in our mind [of it].”
With acts of terrorism on the rise across Europe, Ti Amo’s focus on love is more important now than ever before. While D’Arcy takes some comfort in Centrist Emmanuel Macron’s recent French presidential win — calling it “an outcome that is better than it could have been, obviously” — he’s still concerned that increased violence could push voters to elect a far-right candidate, like Marine Le Pen, in the next election.
“I’m a bit worried about what will happen in five years or 10 years,” D’Arcy says. “I don’t think that many people are racist or fascist. It’s that there’s a real problem, and it’s everywhere in Europe. If it goes on the same track, it is getting dangerous and the warning signs are becoming bigger and bigger.”
Could an album like Ti Amo act as an antidote to the hate? Will listeners in France and elsewhere turn away from the darkness and fall in love with Ti Amo’s promise of romance?
“I don’t know,” D’Arcy says. “Love is needed now, so hopefully it will help some people.”
Phoenix Plays performs at Live 105 BFD, on Saturday, June 10, at Shoreline Amphitheatre. $37.50-$240.