Air built its original success on a platform of familiar sounds, synths and scraps of nostalgia pasted together in an entirely unique way. Maybe pasted together is the wrong way of explaining it. What Air really created is an audible diorama, with three dimensions of very still depth. It doesn’t matter that the meaning behind the group’s music is about as complex as their moniker, because the emotional strings they pull stretch far into the distance.
Listeners have been warming their ears around Air’s aural fire since the group’s inception. It was the originality of the music that kept fans attention in the beginning. Then, Air went and made something that crossed an imaginary line, the album 10,000 Hz Legend, and critics and fans alike decided it was a little too unfamiliar. By producing a record that the two group members dubbed experimental, the duo unwittingly alienated the same fanbase who appreciated their work for its originality in the first place.
With this in mind, it will assuage many fans’ fears to hear that Talkie Walkie is, in many ways, a return to the type of sound featured on Air’s first two albums: Moon Safari and The Virgin Suicides soundtrack. This is not to say that the group has begun repeating themselves. They’ve just applied their song creation philosophy to the construction of Talkie Walkie, assimilating the past with their vision of the future. But here, the vision is incubated in a womblike cocoon of warmth and comfort. That the duo have come back to this point speaks as much to their beginnings as it does to how they’ve changed along the way.
Although both members of Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, grew up near Versailles, France, the pair were not fated to meet until they left for school Studying at the same college far away from home, Godin and Dunckel were introduced by a mutual friend and discovered they shared similar musical tastes, including Burt Bacharach and Serge Gainsbourg. The two formed a musical partnership in 1995 and produced their first album three years later, 1998’s Moon Safari. The record was a departure from the ubiquitous drum and bass and progressive house dominating the electronica scene at the time, the group choosing instead to filter late ‘70s ambient experimentation and ‘80s new wave through their lackadaisical lens.
Moon Safari was well received by fans, including director Sophia Coppola, who asked the pair to create a soundtrack for a film she was directing set in 1970s suburban America: The Virgin Suicides. As many people took notice of The Virgin Suicides score as they did the movie, and Air was firmly planted on the musical map. The group followed up their cinematic work with 10,000 Hz Legend a cheeky album filled with investigative sounds that represented a major departure from the preceding records. But 10,000 Hz Legend received a lukewarm welcome from fans and critics, who claimed that the songs were oversaturated with vocoders and saccharine sounding.
While both members of Air have maintained that it is their intention never to repeat themselves, and forever push boundaries, they understand that it’s possible 10,000 Hz Legend was too much of a variation for some listeners. People started listening to Air in 1998 because they were different, then forsook the group when they stopped being different in the same way. While Air maintains its creative independence, the duo admit that 10,000 Hz Legend’s lack of acceptance hurt their pride. Godin and Dunckel have gone on record as stating that the album represents what they consider to be their finest work.
For this go around, they’ve enlisted the outside help of Producer Nigel Godrich, famous for his work with some of the most highly regarded albums of the last decade. Godrich’s resume includes stints with the likes of Beck, Radiohead and R.E.M. This is the first time that Air has enlisted outside producing help for their work. They’ve also procured the assistance of string arranger Michel Colombier, who worked with Godin and Dunckel’s hero Serge Gainsbourg. But the album’s title originates from Godin and Dunckel’s seemingly telepathic form of communication while in the studio. So while the contributions of Godrich and Colombier are quite obvious on Talkie Walkie, it’s a noticeably Air record.
There are, however, spots where Godrich’s presence behind the curtain is utterly apparent. “Biological”, which begins with a sedated version of the Dr. Who theme song, features the plucking of a banjo, an apparent trademark of Godrich’s over the last few albums he’s produced. “Biological” also includes a sweeping string arrangement by Colombier, which is oddly complimented by the strange sound of a handshake buzzer winding down.
“Universal Traveler” introduces what sounds like an interpretation of the guitar hook from Ani Difranco’s “32 Flavors”, digested with less bile. Dunckel’s singing syncopates between synth notes bending around their own ends, changing the song into something surreal. They keep it slow with “Run”, featuring Dunckel’s luxurious French falsetto, this time sensually set against a sort of drum and bass beat measured down into a lullaby. The video game effects incorporated here may or may not have come from The Legend of Zelda, while the chorus leans on an Enya-esque chorus with the title repeated over until the accent of the singer melts into buttery tonality. Gum drops of beats fall through the cracks of the melody like a light, steady rain as the song gently shifts back and forth between the reassuring chorus and the subtle lyrical waterfall.
Fans of The Virgin Suicides soundtrack will recognize elements in “Cherry Blossom Girl”, which also presents Air’s best imitation of many pop Japanese acts, including The Pizzicato Five and Cornelius, with lyrics that are nonsensical for the sake of creating mood. This is the suburbia presented in the Coppola film that was sweet without being saccharine. Once again, Air is operating their synthesizers here in a way that could be considered sarcastic. But what they do actually works, with the high, harmonizing women’s voices talking about “Cherry blossom girls/ Who will be there/ Be true/ Like a dream come true.”
“Surfing on a Rocket” is Air’s attempt at progressive pop rock, and this is one of the finest gems on the album. The song is filled with beautiful layers of hooks, such as the replication of a military alert siren elongated like taffy. There’s not any special, deeper meaning here. In a way, the group is going for a similar effect to fellow countryman Albert Camus. The importance in their work is not the narrative, but the feeling it evokes. In Camus’s case, that feeling was alienation. In Air’s case, it is just the opposite.
“Alone in Kyoto”, the track donated to Sofia Coppola’s latest film Lost in Translation closes out the album. The song, reminiscent of Vangelis’s score for Blade Runner does a tremendous job of living up to its name, introducing a metropolis that is both overwhelming and distant. Something is on the verge of happening somewhere, in the middle of the night, while the city is still humming, and all is quiet inside your hotel room looking out. An unrequited emotion is being described here, but not necessarily unrequited love. The sound of slow lapping waves becomes clear about three and a half minutes in when the number drops into a few leisurely piano chords and some unforced strums on an acoustic guitar. By the end, the waves are rocking you to sleep in the primordial ocean. If Air intended to take their listeners back to the beginning, it doesn’t go much farther back than this.
// Notes from the Road
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