It is tempting to dismiss the latest album from the band Phoenix as the work of shallow men. The French band, who sing in English (mon Dieu!), might be reduced to a charming recipe: mix addictive melodies and dancing beats, blend with gently angst-filled lyrics, top with references to Franz Liszt and Mozart, and serve chilled, poolside.
This judgment is tempting, but I think it sells short what lead singer Thomas Mars and his bandmates are doing. Underneath all the seductive pop is a reckoning with deeper struggles. They want something greater than the frenzy. They want eternity, but they are not sure how to get it.
Before we consider this, a note about Franz Liszt: Phoenix purportedly chose him as one theme of the album because he was one of the first mega-celebrities of music. He was the Michael Jackson of his day, as he performed for sold-out concert halls, with women swooning over him and screaming his name. Wherever he went it was a mob scene. His personal life was messy as well; he conducted an open affair with a married woman, with whom he would eventually have three children. Yet here is a crucial difference from the late, sad Mr. Jackson; Liszt had a religious conversion when another woman he hoped to marry was denied an annulment. He took this as a sign from God, sought and received minor orders in the Catholic Church, and still continued as a great artist. He spent the rest of his life teaching his craft and writing sublime music.
The striking thing about Phoenix’s album is that as you listen closely, especially keeping Liszt in mind, it seems he points the band toward some sort of conversion of their own. The song “Countdown” is perhaps the most direct. It reflects back on youth when “true and everlasting, that’s what you want” and “when 21 years was old”. But now something has gone wrong: “we’re sick…for the big sun” and “we’re the lonesome.” That last phrase is such a powerful diagnosis: even when “we” are together, we are crushed by loneliness. The same sentiments pervade the swinging, lilting “Lisztomania.” Listening closely, you can slowly hear just how often the words “discouraged” and “disgust” (often punning on “discussed”) arise. It directly undercuts the poppy charm of the music.
So something is wrong, and the question is how to fix it. First, there is a rejection of materialism. “Watch them build up a material tower, think it’s not gonna stay, anyway I think it’s overrated” sings Mars in the song “1901”. Also there is a turn toward accepting loss, as in phrases such as “girlfriends drifting away,” or even accepting death, as Mars sings “past and present, 1855-1901,” and “20 seconds till the last call.”
Yet in all these hints of conversion, there is frustration. “True and everlasting didn’t last that long” Mars sings in “Countdown.” And in “Lasso” he says “forever is a long, long time when you’ve lost your way.” Facing these ultimate questions, to merely turn from materialism and accept death still does not fix the problem. We are still lost.
Mr. Mars and friends are seekers, with a vision for what is lacking in their lives. They do not seem to have found any solutions, and they give no indication of wanting to follow Liszt’s specific path. Even so, for Christians, it can be helpful for us to listen to this album, not only because it contains some delightful rock music, but on top of that it might keep us sensitive to the question that always sits in our hearts. Sometimes, when I find myself saying over and over that Jesus is the Answer in my life, I realize that I have forgotten that he is the Answer to a Question. Phoenix can help us remember some bits of that question. Then, as we relax in the summer sun with the windows open, maybe we can be a little more grateful for the pure gift of knowing the person who is the Answer.