As with the Pulitzer Prize, an esteemed and inviolable committee — a slightly larger one, in this case, as it comprises the entire American public — convenes annually to bestow glory upon the Official Song of the Summer. We're actually way stingier than those Pulitzer folks: Rihanna's “Umbrella” enjoyed a resounding, unanimous victory in 2007, but last summer, with apologies to Lil Wayne and (fewer apologies) to Katy Perry, consensus was less attainable.
I mention this because Phoenix, a gang of nonchalantly exuberant maximalist-pop Frenchmen, has now submitted, for committee review, its fourth record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a nine-song affair with, coincidentally, nine viable Official Song of the Summer candidates. This is gorgeous weather and ice-cream-truck proliferation incarnate, a rare and invaluable quality we sensed back when our frigid city's Bomb Pop availability was woefully inadequate.
First, in the miserable depths of February, came the band-sanctioned online premiere of “1901,” a sweet, dainty guitar melody rudely punctuated by cheerfully farting synth blasts, the drums lithe and propulsive underneath, a tableau so radiant that it felt like a cruel mirage. In early April, they played it on Saturday Night Live, alongside “Lisztomania,” an even more delirious and infectious pure-pop supernova: The Wolfgang leadoff track now soundtracks a YouTube clip of Brat Pack luminaries dancing in The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, etc. A perfect fit.
Twenty-odd spins through Wolfgang later, that joyous seasonal-affective feeling still resonates, manifest in every fiery burst of organic stadium-rock grandeur that bursts forth from the electronics-heavy analog bubble bath. And I hardly mind that even after such frequent submersion, I still have no idea what singer Thomas Mars is talking about, his repetition-heavy lyrics cryptic without ever remotely evoking actual crypts. Still can't decide if that line in the chorus to “Lisztomania” is “like a rhino” or “like a riot, oh!”
Elsewhere, Mars repeats one word incessantly until it loses all meaning and starts to sound foreign and strange. The lovestruck “Girlfriend” offers, “Eh well well well well well well well, do you know me well?” The chorus of “Big Sun” goes “We're sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick for the big sun.” On “Rome,” he reprises a specific tic — a quick, plaintive, upward-spiraling howl of “fall fall fall” — from the band's last album, 2006's less bombastic It's Never Been Like That; for this new song's climax, the farting synths now even more apocalyptic and disruptive, he simply moans, “Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome Rome,” etc., 24 times in all. The rare complete thought that sinks in for me has a confusing dissonance, profound unhappiness conveyed in the cheeriest manner possible: As “Big Sun” works up its own lather, Mars repeatedly shouts, “True/'True and everlasting' didn't last that long/We're lonesome, we're lonesome, yeeeeaaaaaaaah!”
Wolfgang's one completely blatant, sentimental, uncryptic moment has, in fact, very few lyrics at all — “Love Like a Sunset,” split into two parts, the first a buzzing, burping, ambient wash that begins softly and delicately, but grows angrier, louder, and more insistent, concussive drums intruding and goading it into a cacophonic frenzy that abruptly stops dead in its tracks, hums with broken-fever relief for a few seconds, and then, boom, part two: romantic acoustic guitar, throbbing piano, and Technicolor keyboard drones that do indeed evoke love and/or a sunset, with a few sweet nothings from Mars thrown in to hammer home the melodrama. It's incredibly cheesy and unspeakably powerful. As a (slightly) edgier, more experimental feint, it breaks up the exhausting flow of Wolfgang's relentlessly infectious bubblegum nicely, but the fact that it's the record's least conventional Official Song of the Summer candidate perhaps makes it the strongest. The question, really, isn't so much whether it could capably soundtrack our imminent summer, but whether we're capable of having a summer worthy of it.