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‘Alpha Zulu’ Review: A Soaring Rebirth for Phoenix

Album cover for Phoenix's "Alpha Zulu."
Album cover for Phoenix's "Alpha Zulu." By Courtesy of Phoenix / Glassnote Entertainment Group

Phoenix are having a renaissance. If the Botticelli painting on the cover of their new album “Alpha Zulu” doesn’t convince you, then their music will. On Nov. 4, the French indie band unveiled a set of sleek pop-rock vignettes straight from the Louvre, which housed a recording studio for the first time in its centuries-long history.

Lead singer Thomas Mars described “Alpha Zulu” as “all over the place” to Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1, but the album’s thematic breadth works in its favor. Phoenix place their characteristically crisp songwriting and self-production on full display as they outline topics from the personal to the theological.

On the title track, Mars assumes the perspective of a deity seeking to understand humanity’s obsession with sin. “Tell me why, don’t tell me when, don’t tell me how,” he commands. As if to mock the call-and-response structure of many hymns, the intro’s choral synth phrases are met with only silence in between. Mars’s derisive “ha!” reinforces the belief that “singin’ hallelujah” without genuine repentance amounts to little beyond a way to “cover your lies.” Then, the sparse instrumentals assume a celestial resonance as Mars wonders, “Why choose your body over time with me?”

Some potential reasons — and even more questions — emerge on the next track, “Tonight” (feat. Ezra Koenig), Phoenix’s first studio release to feature guest vocals. Mars’s uptempo duet with the Vampire Weekend frontman reconciles nostalgia and immediacy over a bouncy bass line. “What if I was the answer to your prayer?” Mars asks, dismissing spirituality in pursuit of a connection that might not even “last ‘til it’s dawn.” As the post-chorus’s melismatic call to “roll with me” fragments the bridge among insistent echoes, its nonchalance devolves into a sense of losing control. Mars and Koenig restore order by abandoning their trademark wry wordplay to admit a difficult truth: “Oh, how I wish I could be someone like you.”

Doubt starts to cloud Mars’s wishes on “After Midnight” as he contemplates how even the sky, one of life’s few constants, transforms from day to night. The liminal sunset hours in between are at once “way too much” and “not enough” for Mars, who cynically quips that “‘heavenly’ sort of sounds adolescent.” Sparse guitar chords give the melody room to wander, but the song’s balance shifts in the bridge, when the background whir of synths leaps to form arpeggios above a hypnotizing chant of “Listen, listen, it’s illicit.” Mars then breaks his own spell to warn, “Soon you’ll realize it’s after midnight.” The silence that follows, like midnight, arrives sooner than expected.

“Winter Solstice,” the only “Alpha Zulu” track Phoenix wrote remotely instead of in their Louvre studio, captures the bleak isolation of feeling dispensable to someone essential. “Thank God you know your ways,” Mars sings, a muffled beat blunting the edge of his sarcasm. “What would you trade me for?” The layers of synths closing in on Mars’s voice emphasize his desperation to find “something positive” as the days get shorter.

Album closer “Identical” pays homage to the late producer and DJ Philippe Zdar, who worked on Phoenix’s 2010 Grammy-winning hit “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.” The soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s film “On the Rocks” featured an alternate cut of the song, and the newly extended version amplifies its searching mood.

“Alpha Zulu” takes its name from a phrase Mars heard a pilot repeat during a patch of in-flight turbulence, and Phoenix wrote “almost all” of it in just 10 days. Though the pandemic prevented the band members from meeting in person for months, their whirlwind creative process propelled them past towering challenges to even greater heights.

—Staff writer Clara V. Nguyen can be reached at

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