In his review of the latest Phoenix Foundation album, Nick Bollinger said Fandango may well be their best album yet. He qualified it by saying that he has thought that about each new Phoenix Foundation release. That’s always a trap—the new is exciting purely because it is new.
I, however, am bold enough to state quite categorically that it really is their best album yet. It is undoubtedly a progression for them, a new direction even, but such is the consistency and strength of the songwriting and performance, it still sounds like no one other than the Phoenix Foundation.
It is a double album, though fortunately each disc is only around 40 minutes long. Simon Sweetman declared that “it’s clearly aiming to be the big-serve record of the band’s career.” The mere fact that it is a double album suggests ‘epic’, and while the album only has 12 tracks (no more than previous albums), most of the songs aren’t any longer than many of their previous tracks. However, both discs do end with lengthy numbers, again reinforcing the notion of the ‘epic’.
Fandango is a difficult album to categorise. It is their least guitar-centric album, though the bass guitar is more of a musical force than previously. The keyboards are more to the fore and it is quite dancey, but it’s hardly electronica. On first listening I thought it was closest to Luke Buda’s solo albums, but after giving them my first listen in years I realised that this was different beast still. There is less of the straight rock that appeared on previous albums, and while there are any number of musical reference points throughout, they’ve created something unique and contemporary without sounding like it necessarily comes from 2013—this isn’t Lorde.
But as Luke Buda succinctly put it in his recent interview with Lumière’s Alexander Bisley: “It’s songs, mostly, but they’re just arranged in different interesting ways, and so that’s Fandango.”
The fact that the guitar is no longer driving the melody suggests songs written alone that have been entirely deconstructed and rebuilt by the band. But the rebuilding is all about experimenting, indulging themselves, and trying things out. Musically, it’s their most obviously complex album, with songs evolving and changing. There are moments of beauty, little sounds that grab the attention, hold it for a bit, and then are gone. More than previously it feels like the vocals are used as an instrument, not just a way to deliver the lyrics.
Speaking of which, Sam Scott’s poetry, and to a certain extent that of Luke Buda, has long been one of the most important aspects of the Phoenix Foundation sound. Again they offer their unique take on the world, their deft touch with rhymes, the subtle humour, and domestic reality.
That said, Fandango is not a perfect album, the weakest moments for me are in ‘Evolution Did’—however much I may agree with the sentiment and the catchy tune, it contains the lamest lyrics on the album—and the 17 minutes of the final track ‘Friendly Society’, a fine enough song but there just doesn’t seem to be any real reason for its length.
On the Guardian’s website, Scott referred to Fandango as “test match music,” arguing that, “it is ridiculously long but a highly rewarding experience for those who can spend some time with it.” An apt metaphor maybe, but I’d have this over a test match any day.