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Phoenix, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Not-Quite-Mindless Indie Pop

“Fior di Latte” and “Cut to the Feeling” are the transcendent, frivolous songs you’ve been waiting for

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

We could be coy and oblique about this — that is Phoenix’s tendency, though not really Carly Rae Jepsen’s — but the two best pop songs of summer 2017 thus far are awfully, uh, erotic, in a delirious, eggheaded sort of way. “I wanna wake up with you all in tangles, oh,” Jepsen thunders on “Cut to the Feeling,” her latest ode to lovelorn sugar shock; “Onnnn, we’re meant to get it onnnnn,” Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars murmurs on the slow and spacey “Fior di Latte,” the French band’s latest triumph of sunny, Google Translate–defying sensuality.

If “alterna-pop” is a concept that interests you, these tracks are paragons of the form, delivered by longtime critical darlings with plenty of mainstream attention but enough adorable idiosyncrasies to feel like cult favorites. Critics love pure pop now, but they’ve loved scruffy, disruptive underdogs forever. Neither track will top the charts nor merit true Song of Summer consideration — and only Jepsen is even trying — but both are fantastic if you prefer your randy poolside escapism with a whiff of prestige.

Phoenix’s sixth album, Ti Amo, came out Friday and has proved a very pleasant surprise even for longtime stans; it’s weird and joyous, with the pure adrenaline rush of Actual Pop Music shrewdly undercut by the surrealism of the indie rock that was once supposed to make Actual Pop Music irrelevant. The band’s breakout record, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was perfect for both rooftop barbecues and packed stadiums, the lyrics inscrutable but the hooks immaculate, gargantuan. The whooshing “Lisztomania” is still Summer Incarnate; the “bootleg ’80s teen dance party” mashup video was awfully instructive.

That year, largely because they played guitars and looked like slightly hip philosophy professors, Phoenix got lumped in with Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, and the other aloof underground savants then hailed as Brooklyn’s Sonic Boom. But Mars and Co. had grander designs, floating on the hedonistic-brainiac synth-pop spectrum that stretches from Duran Duran all the way to the 1975. In 2017, they’re a big enough deal that they can replace Frank Ocean as the headliner on a major festival bill (even if that’s a crushing disappointment for 95 percent of the crowd).

“Fior di Latte” (it’s a gelato) is a mildly lewd daydream, an underwater-prom theme for first-time slow dancers. The synthesizers wobble and wheeze, as though you’re staring mesmerized at the ripples of your secret crush’s in-ground pool; the lyrics are cryptic and slightly aggressive. (“A little bit of disrespect could be / Another way to break the ordinary.”) The song literally ends with a school bell rudely blaring, the softcore wallflower reverie shattered.

Ti Amo is full of such moments, primary-color emotions swirled into a savvy kaleidoscopic haze, its reference points (“Fleur de Lys” is built on a sample of Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti’s “Expensive Shit”) undercut by Mars’s erudite loopiness. He makes slightly hip nonsense sound timeless and profound, as though even his sunglasses are wearing sunglasses. Every successive verse on the strutting “Ti Amo” gets goofier and goofier, with this …

… giving way to this:

Many of the rock critics who flipped for Phoenix in 2009 have since succumbed to poptimism, the slippery and contentious philosophy that demands the total fealty to Beyoncé, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, etc. once reserved for those indie and rock superstars of yore. This new attitude of lavish praise for the boldest-face names is justified: Our biggest pop stars are now making some of our most thoughtful and challenging music. The downside is when those artists start crudely pandering to that impulse — when big shots who specialize in transcendent frivolity overreach for profundity instead, à la Katy Perry’s wayward attempt at “purposeful pop.”

On the other hand, that clears the lane for other people to try their hands at transcendent frivolity.

Carly Rae Jepsen doesn’t do purposeless pop, exactly, but there’s a shrewd teenage-dream simplicity to her, a thoughtful refusal to overthink things. “Cut to the Feeling” sounds like 10 all-time Madonna smash hits blaring simultaneously, flawless and euphoric; it’s apparently a lost track from the sessions that produced her 2015 album Emotion, which inspired some of the most ecstatic writing in recent memory but sold poorly. If you’re on the bandwagon, the fact that not everyone is on the bandwagon is confounding; if you’re not on it, the ardor of the bandwagon itself is confounding. She’s a pop star whose breakout hit, “Call Me Maybe,” was one of the biggest songs of the past decade, which makes her an unusual choice for an underdog.

One explanation for the depth of feeling Jepsen inspires is that Emotion, last year’s Emotion Side B companion piece, and now “Cut to the Feeling” are all pretty fantastic. Her songs treat adolescent (or at least adolescent-seeming) puppy love like the most serious thing in the world, which is patently absurd, and also maybe true. Part of the problem might be the reliably thought-provoking disconnect between Jepsen’s age (early 30s) and her mushy subject matter. She’s inspiring an awful lot of highbrow content lately, with much fretting about nominal adults pantomiming the feelings and emotions of adolescents. It’s hard to tell how much psychic weight a righteous CRJ jam like “Run Away With Me” is designed to bear, if projecting deep thoughts onto a love song so sweet and effervescent is honoring it or just overloading and overthinking it. Treating someone who intentionally sounds like Debbie Gibson as if she’s Bruce Springsteen may be doing her a disservice. Jepsen makes the best sort of purposeful pop: the type that doesn’t feel the need to announce itself as such. The depth and profundity here can’t be explained, only felt.

At their best, shadow-pop songs like “Cut to the Feeling” and “Fior di Latte” inspire a ton of critical thought but also blissfully defy thought of any kind, technically speaking the language of the Hot 100 and the car stereo, but garbling the syntax, scrambling both the logic and the emotions. There is grave danger in taking this stuff too seriously, but rich rewards in figuring out how to take it just seriously enough. It used to be that for artists and fans alike, you raged against the Mainstream Pop Machine by embracing music that sounded nothing like it. But there might be even more fun in beating it by joining it.