Où est l'Air d'antan?
In its discussion of Air, the Rough Guide to Rock quotes a (possibly apocryphal) 1992 headline from the French national newspaper Le Figaro lamenting “Thirty Years of French Rock ‘n’ Roll and Still Not One Good Song”.
Obviously, the Rough Guide‘s point with that quotation was to emphasize the recent emergence of a significant corpus of artists—led by Air—who have started to put contemporary French music on the pop map. While they might not exactly be categorized as “rock ‘n’ roll”, records by electronic and dance-oriented artists like Daft Punk, Sebastien Tellier, Laurent Garnier, Rinôçerôse, Mirwais, and Dimitri from Paris have—in a relatively short time—achieved unprecedented success on a global level.
Defenders of French pop music have of course contended that it was always unfairly maligned, primarily by Anglo detractors. Any mockery of French rock and pop, the argument goes, bespeaks ignorance of a healthy tradition that began in the ‘60s (with the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, and Françoise Hardy) and has spawned household names in numerous genres: Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis), Ange (the French Genesis), Magma (the French Soft Machine), Téléphone (the French Stones), Indochine (the French Cure), and Les Négresses Vertes (the French Pogues), among countless others.
Unfortunately, however, Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend suggests that there may be more than a grain of truth to the old stereotype about Gallic underachievement on the pop front (despite genuinely talented artists like Gainsbourg). While Air’s stunning 1998 debut album Moon Safari challenged the unflattering clichés, it now seems that release may have been an anomaly.
With its layered, floating textures, Moon Safari was a brilliantly paradoxical, retro-futurist record. Working with seemingly kitschy and residual elements of pop culture (Bacharach-esque lushness, leitmotifs from ‘70s disco, and prog atmospherics), generated by similarly anachronistic technology (mellotrons, Moog synths, and Fender Rhodes keyboards), Air conjured up a remarkably fresh, forward-looking sound with a distinctive melodic sensibility and a rich emotive register.
Sadly, it appears that Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin have lost their delicate touch on 10,000 Hz Legend. For the most part, the album has little in common with Moon Safari—not that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is that it offers only a hodgepodge of inconsistent, dissimilar tracks that are often quite forgettable. Much of 10,000 Hz Legend is a bland, characterless exercise in mundane pop-rock that plods rather than floats.
Symptomatic of Air’s rather pedestrian tendencies here is the use of electronic and electronically processed vocals, although that had worked well on Moon Safari. Indeed, one of the most striking accomplishments of the duo’s debut album was its graceful injection of warmth into the predominantly cerebral genre of electronica, harmoniously and melodically blending man and machine by means of vocoders and voice boxes.
As Nicolas Godin told the Guardian recently: “Since the start, we used electronic voice in an emotional way, not a cold way. This is the trademark of Air. When we started using vocoder four years ago, it was like angels’ voices, not robots”.
This is not the case on 10,000 Hz Legend. For instance, there is the opening track, “Electronic Performers”. Its heavily processed, slowed-down vocals are nothing more than a flat, affectless monotone that goes against the grain of the music. There is a sense in which this is intended playfully, as the digitized voice speaks for Dunckel and Godin as “electronic performers”. (“We search new programs for your pleasure / I want to patch my soul on your brain / BPM controls your heartbeats / We are the synchronizers”.) Unfortunately, it’s all a bit heavy-handed and HAL-like. You expect to hear “My mind is going, Jean-Benoît, I can feel it”.
Things take a turn for the worse on the horribly murky “How Does It Make You Feel?” where the voice is far from angelic. Here, processing is abandoned altogether and, for the lead vocals, Air appears to take a completely synthetic, robotic route. What sounds like a Mac computer voice waxes expressionless on the theme of emotions, to a relentlessly dull beat. (There is a human chorus, but its saccharine feel doesn’t help much.) Again, Air’s use of technology is hardly original, but that’s not the issue here—there’s never been anything intrinsically original about the duo’s sound. Previously, much of its appeal has derived from playing with kitsch. But on 10,000 Hz Legend, Dunckel and Godin don’t seem to be doing anything interesting with their technology, retro or otherwise. In this particular case, the track just sounds weary and unimaginative, symptomatic perhaps of a couple of artists with little left to say.
Listening to “How Does It Make You Feel?” you can’t help thinking of Radiohead. It’s not just the use of a computer voice similar to the one that appears on “Fitter Happier” from OK Computer, it’s the pervasive, moody prog feel of the proceedings on 10,000 Hz Legend. But while Radiohead’s re-imaginings of Pink Floyd have been consistently innovative and compelling, on this release Air just sounds like a boring derivative of both.
That said, there are a couple of exceptions. These can be heard on tracks where Air does prog rock in a way that harkens back to the feel of Moon Safari. On “Radian” and “Lucky and Unhappy”, Dunckel and Godin don’t seem to be trying quite so hard and it suits them, since the laid-back results are impressive. The first of these begins with a droning texture not unlike the Dr. Who theme, only to morph into the sound of Pink Floyd being done by a ‘70s French TV orchestra. This number in particular excels, with its mellow, supple groove of harp, piano, flute, and subtle beats. “Lucky and Unhappy” is equally successful, blending a simple beat with Dark Side of the Moon/Wish You Were Here-era vocals and synths.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the tracks on 10,000 Hz Legend sound like they could be the work of bands other than Air—and you can’t help wishing that they were, because they’re so uninspired. While “Wonder Milky Bitch” finds the duo doing a novelty impression of Gainsbourg at his most dissolute, the tired electro-folk of “The Vagabond”, featuring Beck, sounds like, um, Beck. And then there’s the album’s nadir, “Radio #1”, on which Air proves to be the antithesis of its name. This is a throwaway trudger of a song, a tasteless Buggles-like affair that works well only as a parody of early ‘80s pop.
There is one instance of Air not sounding like Air-of-old, and succeeding. This comes with “Don’t Be Light”, which incorporates a faux-Bond symphonic swelling, sparse techno beats and, eventually, a Neu!-like motorik groove.
Had 10,000 Hz Legend been Air’s debut album, there probably wouldn’t have been a follow-up. Save a few echoes of the duo’s earlier sound, this release is immensely disappointing. If they go on composing tracks like “Radio #1”, Dunckel and Godin look like a safe bet to win next year’s Eurovision song contest.