Please note that Air’s latest album is Love 2 and not Love 2.0. Air is not looking for a radical reinvention. If anything, what they’re presenting is intended to be some kind of sequel to previous efforts, or perhaps a rebranding effort for the emotion of love. Sadly, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel’s new love is about as ill-advised as New Coke and this makes for a cluttered, uneven, and kinda hokey listen.
The cheeky title signals a retreat from sincerity, but, truth be told, the rejection of kitsch on Pocket Symphony was something of a relief. The band has always retained a partially ironic pose, a knowing wink which precluded the self-annointedly hip’s aversion to the junk MOR muzak that Air embraced. To smooth matters further, Air’s has always been a definitive sound — pulp sci-fi proggy synths, sensual Stax bass, dime store novel romantic strings, XXY androgynous vocals — whose chromosomal engineering somehow manages to come off more like natural selection than slapdash Frankensound. Yet, the mature Koto-assisted pop loneliness and longing of Pocket Symphony was so elegantly accomplished, it transcended much of the chatter that the band had run out of steam.
Love 2 doesn’t so much sound like a retreat as a regression. Any one of these tracks could be heard in the context of previous work as a B-side. There’s not much bad material, but there’s no real clear standout either. If I had to pick one, it’d probably be the breezy “Heaven’s Light”, which excels mainly by virtue of its evocation of Moon Safari and particularly “Kelly Watch the Stars”. Amidst the rest of the clutter, it’s almost a tranquil and timeless place to reside. “On the way to the heaven’s light / Where the time doesn’t matter,” Dunckel sings. It’s as if, with that line, Godin and Dunckel are able to stop time and revel in hazy narcotic bliss after trying so frustratingly hard throughout the rest of the LP.
Even though it is a far better album than 10,000 Hz Legend, Love 2 is more of a disappointment than their sophomore outing. After the success of Moon Safari, it was anybody’s guess whether the band had a second act in them. After proving it possible several years later with Pocket Symphony and Talkie Walkie (which is easily their best album), Love 2’s mediocrity is deeply vexing, particularly since a halfway decent album probably could have squeezed by with a few minor tweaks in things like instrumentation and emphasis.
Reverb is another surprisingly absent presence. Much of what made Air’s mellifluously, practically decadently soft electronica so appealing was the way it seemed to be performed within a puffy cloud. Even when things kicked up a notch, the songs still left gaseous dust trails in their wake. You can check this absence on “Eat My Beat”, which, like the go-go live versions of “Kelly Watch the Stars” and “Marbrouk” on last year’s 10th anniversary edition of Moon Safari, is quite emphatic, but could stand to be… oh, I don’t know… milkier.
“Be a Bee” is similar and tries to run off of the same juice as “Dead Bodies” from the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, but on a battery as old as that film. The Man or Astroman style guitar invited to play on top is almost comically rigid, too stilted to either surf or spy to.
The crunchy guitars and wobbly UFO LFO moogs of “Do The Joy”, on the other hand, are immediately appealing, but the track never lifts off. “Missing the Light of the Day” is the most welcome aberrance from the traditional Air aesthetic, promoting a metropolitan synthpop with squishy bass hits and some stately Gary Numan synths. The vocals however, which seem to harmonize dual channel female voice (or Dunckel on helium) and what sounds like an auto-tuned opposite, are ill-matched and far too uninvolved with the vigorous confidence of the melody to realize the track’s potential.
Dunckel’s vocals, so prominent on the last album, are pushed into the backdrop for Love 2. In addition to four instrumentals on this twelve track album, lyrics are essentially irrelevant or ornamental on “Do the Joy” (a lame call and response between a keyboard “do” present and a talkie walkie “the joy”), “Be a Bee” (unintelligible yelping), “Love” (where the only lyric is the title word), and “You Can Tell It to Everybody” (whose full lyrics are “You can tell it to everybody / There is something between us”). On the rest, Dunckel’s signature lisp seems even more prominent, almost to the point of distraction on “Sing Sang Sung”, the obvious first single.
It’s hard to find fault with the latter track. Bringing back the sunny folk guitars, it’s vivacious without harshing your mellow, a staple of classic Air if there ever was one. Teetering the line between Target twee and effervescent and pennaceous moonbeam pop, the song at its brightest still hardly reaches a zenith equivalent to the worst on Talkie Walkie. It’s not at all a poor song. It’s just weak for a centerpiece, as it clearly aims to be. You kind of wish the classic Air impulses might have heeded the advice transcribed into its own verse “What are we doing here my friend? / Take a breath, put the pen away / Nothing lasts / It’s better that way.”