For almost a decade, French guitar-pop band Phoenix has been haphazardly balancing theory and pleasure, coming on one moment like rhythm-for-rhythm's-sake conceptualizer Spoon, and the next like disco-fied '70 soft-rocker Starbuck. Phoenix's first two studio albums—2000's United and 2004's Alphabetical—were dotted with quick bursts of giddy, danceable music, but a lot of the songs sounded dryly conceptual, and Phoenix didn't come across as fully engaged until last year's rocked-up live album Thirty Days Ago. The band stays in flat-out mode for It's Never Been Like That, which opens with the guitar-alarm and seductive come-ons of "Napoleon Says," and continues through nine more compositionally similar but collectively daring pop-art constructions. Throughout, guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai stagger rockabilly jangle, New Order tautness, and even the acoustic chug of George Michael's "Faith," creating a well-cushioned space for singer Thomas Mars to grapple with the ways nostalgia and lust cohere into the same frustration.
Albums with this kind of thematic and stylistic unity can be hard to access. (Listen to The Walkmen's latest, A Hundred Miles Off, for an example.) But It's Never Been Like That keeps coming up with new amusements, from an unexpected synth sting to a pithy Mars line like "Sold an ugly necklace downtown / Found out it was Egyptian." The album was recorded in an industrial district of Berlin, but aside from some krautrock elements in the mellow instrumental "North" and the skyrocketing anthem "Sometimes In The Fall," Phoenix mainly reacted to the bleak surroundings by amplifying the undertones of yearning and escapism that have always been part of its music. It's Never Been Like That has the necessary edge of real art, but it's approachable right down to the final song, "Second To None," with its deep echo and thin lines.