Remember the silence that fell around the world in spring 2020? Most of us felt that silence in our homes, but what would it be like to experience it in a once-bustling museum, surrounded by some of the world’s most valuable artifacts? Recorded at Paris’ Musée des Arts décoratifs, Phoenix’s Alpha Zulu (2022) is an exuberant explosion of sound, breaking triumphantly from pandemic solemnity. The band’s public health crisis-induced night at the museum is hardly thematically blissful—addressing selfhood, death, and lost love—but beautifully couched in lush synths and cheery guitars, it all feels a little more bearable.
You might not know it, but you’ve heard Phoenix. After the massive success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009), quirky, energetic hits like “1901” and “Lisztomania” made it into car commercials, TV theme songs, and even tangentially sparked a Republican meltdown. Alongside bands like The Strokes and Vampire Weekend, Phoenix defined the indie landscape of 2010s, but Alpha Zulu proves that they’re hardly relics of that era.
In an interview with Uproxx, lead singer Thomas Mars outlined the band’s philosophy in crafting the record: “Every album we make is a reaction to previous one. As we were digging into this one, we realized that we were putting the songs that had the least in common together.” In its more playful moments, Alpha Zulu is a clear progression from the Italian disco-infused Ti Amo (2017), drawing on the album’s upbeat suavity. Still, Alpha Zulu feels unlike anything the band has ever done before. Here, Phoenix dives headfirst into electronic music, allowing their characteristic jangly guitars to take a backseat to synthesizers. Ultimately, the band maintains their expressive, ambiguous lyricism but showcases it against a glitzier background.
“Alpha Zulu,” the album’s lead single, shakes any preconceived notions of what Phoenix can and can’t do. A groovy, bass-forward track, “Alpha Zulu” verges on gimmicky with “woo ha’s” and “hallelujah’s” (enunciated with a characteristically French aspirated “h” and a goofily drawn-out “uuu”) and a jolt of surf rock guitar. The track’s lighthearted sound belies its lyrical concerns, contemplating mortality and faith. “Tell me why, don’t tell me when, don’t tell me how,” Mars cynically drawls.
The first collaboration in the band’s multi-decade career, “Tonight (feat. Ezra Koenig),” is a clear standout, drawing on the band’s strengths without falling into cliché. Phoenix and Koenig (Vampire Weekend’s frontman) are a match made in heaven—since their domination in the 2010s, the two bands have been some of the most consistent players in the indie scene. An incredibly infectious bassline coupled with cascading synths and upbeat guitar enlivens a classic ’80s drum beat that, for a more amateur group, might come off as ’80s pop parody. Though the deft guitarwork would be at home in the Vampire Weekend discography, most of the credit belongs to Phoenix—only Ezra Koenig’s voice features on the track. The meld of Koenig’s voice with Mars’ is a clear success, lending the question “Are you still up thinkin’ of me?” a pleasant sweetness. But “Tonight” isn’t cloying—as they ask the listener to “roll with me,” Mars and Koenig sing with equal parts desperation and facetiousness, making the song playful instead of pleading.
The lovesick agony and ecstasy of “Tonight” doesn’t last long—Alpha Zulu quickly reveals itself as deceptively moody. On “The Only One,” the band treads similar ground to “Alpha Zulu,” as Mars questions his own mortality. “Resurrect us all / I wanna be forever young… Why do I need to carry on?” he inquires over energetic drums. With a dramatic chorus that breaks into shimmering, maximalist synths, it’s easy to imagine hearing “The Only One” on a Parisian dance floor despite its philosophical lyrics.
“Winter Solstice,” the only song Mars wrote while separated from his bandmates in Northern California, is similarly brooding. Mars’ anxiety and pandemic dread is palpable, occasionally falling into hopeless moodiness. “Why open your eyes to go to bed? / Drive straight to the ocean / And see what we won’t find out / Even the righteous beheaded their loved ones,” he bemoans. “Winter Solstice” is the simplest, most muted song on the album, driven by a straightforward synth melody, spacious, echoing drum beats, and Mars’ distorted vocals. Still, it builds to a tremendous high, at once energetic and drained.
The process of introspection continues on “Artefact,” as Mars tries to balance his sense of self with a fierce desire to hold on to a loved one. From the instrumentation to the lyrics, “Artefact” feels the most classically Phoenix. Over unfussy drums and guitar, the band wades through the confusion of love gone sour—“Did you know / Every color turned blue? / How to find the shore in a waterfall?” On the bridge, Mars’ voice warps slightly through Daft Punk-esque autotune (unsurprising considering former Daft Punk member Thomas Bangalter helped produce the album). Direct but colorful lyricism has always been one of Phoenix’s strengths, and here they’re in rare form. “Heart of styrofoam / Over the telephone / Oh, let the rumor run through / Here, I tell the truth,” Mars commands, conjuring the painful but freeing understanding that your feelings are unreciprocated.
Like “Artefact,” “My Elixir” cuts to the heart of messy, uncomfortable feelings with surgical but never clinical precision. The chiptune intro, reminiscent of vintage video games, casts the song in a hazy nostalgia that flows through the lyrics. Caught between vulnerability and stoicism, Mars pushes away a loved one: “Am I lost when you’re sincere? / But I cannot let you in / We’re both in tears.” Zig-zagging guitar riffs break through the ambient synths, building to the song’s emotional peak. “My Elixir” beautifully captures loneliness and a sense of displacement without slipping into total despondency—instead, it lands right at the painful and pleasurable intersection of longing for the past.
“Identical” closes out the album on an even more reflective note—as the last song recorded with the band’s longtime producer Philippe Zdar, who passed away in 2019, it’s hard to not imbue the sound and lyrics with a bittersweet sense of finality. The song was first released as part of the soundtrack for collaborator Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (2020), but it fits beautifully with the rest of the album. The pre-chorus features a powerful, siren-like synth build that breaks into a subdued, wistful chorus as Mars sings, “I’m losin’ my friend, I’m losin’ my grip / Prayin’ all night to radio waves” with impressive conviction. The album version of the song features an extended fourth verse but faithfully adheres to the original melody, using its extra two minutes to wax poetic but verging on esoteric. Still, “Identical” embodies Phoenix’s signature poignancy and commitment to embracing ambiguity.
As they breeze past their 25th anniversary, Phoenix is comfortable enough in their skin to push the envelope of their sound. The band knows how to be offbeat without being off-putting, and Alpha Zulu is no exception. Even decades after their breakout hits, Phoenix can still hold their own in a crowded indie landscape. While it’s hardly the most revolutionary album, Alpha Zulu is a legacy-maker.
VOICE’S CHOICES: “Tonight,” “Identical,” “After Midnight”