Despite being named one of Spin magazine’s 20 best albums of 2009 so far, Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has not made a favorable impression upon yours truly. I know the album now comes floating in its own jar of critical jizz, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I get that it’s catchy, but that’s not a defense for repetitive songs that say exactly jack shit about fuckall.
But hold on: the wise people at Pitchfork.com had this to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: “It’s truly universal– everybody live, love, and die.” I’m with ya on the “die” part, Pitchfork. But I’m trying to keep an open mind here. I’ll allow that maybe, just maybe the fact that I don’t like an album that every-fucking-body else seems to like might suggest that I am either 1) wrong this time and/or 2) in need of help.
So I got help. From my good friend and resident musical pathologist Rebecca Mellor (no relation). We sat down over coffee (I wanted booze, but she suggested that drinking makes conversation with me somehow less productive and two or three times as vulgar. Since I’m seeking help here, I decided to trust the professional). I recorded our conversation and transcribed it below; you can judge for yourself if it’s me or the world that’s fucked up here.
Me: Thanks for meeting with me on the weekend.
Dr. M: You’re welcome. Thanks for showing up sober.
Me: No problem. So, have you listened to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix?
Dr. M: I have. I’m pleased – and somewhat surprised – to report that you are perfectly justified in your contempt for this album.
Me: I am?
Dr. M: Certainly. Let me tell you what’s going on here: every year, sometimes twice a year, an album comes along that is just so outrageously catchy that it seduces a significant portion of the population. You might put MGMT and Vampire Weekend in this category, for instance.
Me: Those records were mostly okay.
Dr. M: Sure they were. But they weren’t great, were they?
Me: Definitely not. They were exactly okay. But this one dude swore to me that MGMT’s record was the album of the year last year, despite the fact that it actually came out in 2007.
Dr. M: Exactly. People get so caught up in how catchy these kind of albums are that they experience something akin to a mild psychotic break and engage in acts of tragic – though sometimes hilarious – hyperbole in their rush to praise the album in question. The Phoenix album is no different. Pitchfork said Phoenix “discards anything– an outro, a bridge, an extra hi-hat hit– that could be deemed superfluous”, displaying a stunning and willful lack of awareness that the entire five and a half minutes of “Love Like A Sunset Part I” is musically masturbatory bullshit.
Me: Wow. You sounded like me there for a second.
Dr. M: I’m sorry. But seeing people attribute near Christ-like healing powers to albums of the fluffiest musical stuff – the lyrics on this album aren’t “cryptic,” they’re just awful – provokes a strong reaction in me. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix represents a disturbing trend among these over-praised pop albums. MGMT had some songs that were a little ridiculous, but they were catchy and still somewhat coherent.
Me: “Time to Pretend” is a great song.
Dr. M: Exactly. MGMT and Vampire Weekend both snuck bits of real high quality music into their albums. Phoenix is cutting and pasting nonsense together into something that is melodically catchy but otherwise entirely meaningless.
Me: So let me play devil’s advocate here. The counterargument you’ll probably get is “What’s wrong with a good melody? The Beatles had melody. Kurt Cobain wrote good melodies. Why do you hate America?”
Dr. M: I’m not sure my patriotism will be questioned for not liking Phoenix, especially since they’re apparently French.
Me: You underestimate the stupid-power of internet comments.
Dr. M: Perhaps. But to address your counterargument, there’s nothing wrong with melody in and of itself. But catchy melodies can be used to make you nod your head to songs that can actually make you a stupider person. Great music, generally, requires a strong sense of melody, but if you’re singing words over that melody, you have to be careful what you’re planting in people’s brains. Consider Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, for instance. While there’s no denying that “Music of the Night” is a melodically lovely tune, there is also no denying that Phantom of the Opera is a puffed up, plotless spectacle designed to rake in the disposable income of middle-aged white women.
Me: So you think Phoenix is trying to use their melodic powers to get people to buy and rave over a completely bullshit album?
Dr. M: That’s my professional opinion, yes. The lyrics on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix might as well be gibberish – they make Anthony Keidis and Axl Rose look like Allen Ginsberg and John Berryman by comparison. At the end of the day, because there are only so many musical notes at any given musician’s disposal, it is not enough to suggest that the mere arrangement of those notes into a pleasing – or not pleasing but simply memorable – pattern is some kind of high artistic achievement. On a long enough timeline, any idiot could slap together a catchy melody entirely by accident. You could write a computer program that would make Phoenix songs and, while I don’t want to tell people what they should and should not listen to, I would suggest to you that understanding this album as anything other than a sugary pop confection might be a sign of brain damage.
Me: So, just so we’re clear here: I am not only correct in disliking Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but it’s a sign that I’m of sound mind?
Dr. M: Yes, though you shouldn’t ignore the many other signs that you, specifically, are not of sound mind.
Me: Such as?
Dr. M: You work in an invisible office with an Imaginary Secretary.
Me: Right. But I don’t like Phoenix. So I’m okay, right?
Dr. M: (long sigh) Yes. Sure. You’re fine. Can I go now?
Me: Yeah. You sure you don’t to come back to the Imaginary Office, maybe have a beer and listen to Captain Beefheart?
Dr. M: I’m sure.
Me: Suit yourself.
And that’s how it went down, folks. You heard it from my own resident musical pathologist: the people at Pitchfork are officially brain-damaged.
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