Pocket Symphony, the fourth studio album by French duo Air, is a stovetop reduction of the band’s atmospheric sound. Only the very basics of Air’s well-groomed romantic pop are in play: the classically cognizant affectations and electronically inclined augmentations, the sweetly ephemeral repetitions of musical motif, the weightless sensation of modernism adrift in its own waking dreams. There are no further embellishments of aesthetic here or adjustments in methodology. It is perhaps the first album in Air’s now decade-long career built solely on the band’s essence alone.
Air’s exquisiteness has always been an effect of its ability to scale back arrangements and keep things simple; its songs have a way of wielding tangible power without being over-orchestrated. And yet, Pocket Symphony takes that concept to a minimal extreme: rarely do things heat up beyond the structural core of repeating, arpeggioed acoustic guitars and pianos; softly eroding synthesizers; and double-tracked, whispered vocals. Even the occasional Eastern flair (Nicolas Godin learned to play the koto and shamisen, two Japanese stringed instruments, for the sessions, and uses them sparingly throughout the record) is applied only as a fleeting tint to the album’s soft-focus haze. The effect is trancelike and contented, and, indeed, if you forgive the band its refusal to tamper with its own sound à la 2001’s 10,000 Hz Legend, you’ll find Pocket Symphony to be quite the contenting listen.
This is not to say that the record is boring, though its exceptionally rainy-day gait is impossible to ignore. Air’s previous album, Talkie Walkie (2004), had a moderate pace and enchanting demeanor, but Pocket Symphony is downright somnolent, like Talkie Walkie on Quaaludes. “Left Bank” may sound like Nick Drake circling the planet and sport a beautiful acoustic guitar riff, and the instrumental “Space Maker” may subtly fall into a wonderfully descending coda, but such hallmarks tend to be overshadowed by the overall sleepiness of things. Were it not for the upbeat awakening of “Mer du Japon”, which arrives shortly after the halfway mark with a simple but strong groove, the album could flounder in its own spaced-out anonymity.
Jarvis Cocker, in one of the album’s two guest vocalist spots, doesn’t exactly smolder, either. He’s barely there in his vocal on “One Hell of a Party”, and the song’s sparse arrangement gives precious little for him to hang onto. Cocker’s lyrics do the bloodshot vibe justice (“Here in the burnt-out husk of the morning / Strung out with nothing left to say”), even if his performance isn’t incredibly compelling. On the other hand, “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping”, a track featuring the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, is an excellent piece, probably the album’s most interesting song in the formal sense. Its melody, structure, and decompressing mood (aided by the heavy-eyelid string section and Hannon’s convincing performance) all contribute to an example of impeccably crafted, classic balladry.
Pocket Symphony‘s conspicuous pleasures may be exceedingly rare, but as an album-length listen, it can be a finely infusive experience. While it’s far too easy to fault the band for creative lethargy, it’s equally easy to excuse any so-called faults because Air has such an inherent pop sensibility. “Once Upon a Time”, the record’s lead-off single, is drowsy pop, but it’s no less bewitching for it; likewise, the nod-off pair of closing tracks, “Redhead Girl” and “Night Sight”, relocate the haunting ambiance of the second half of David Bowie’s Low into the childlike allure of a music box. Pocket Symphony is not the acme of Air’s modernist catalog, but it just may be the most unassuming.