All I need is a little sign to get behind this sun and cast this weight of mine. All I need is the place to find, and there I'll celebrate the 157th most acclaimed album of all time. '90s French electronica pioneers are this week's Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: Coming of age in the 1990s was great for someone like me because electronic music was really starting to come into its own as a wide variety of artists began to take advantage of the emerging technologies to create new and interesting soundscapes. A few of those artists, your Fatboy Slims (coming in at No. 494 on the Great List) and Mobys (No. 366), even managed to achieve mainstream success. But the group that picked up the most critical acclaim from that time period was the Parisian duo of Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunkel, and their 1998 effort Moon Safari.
Now, I think it should be noted that Air is an electronic music duo who doesn't necessarily make electronic music. Listening to Moon Safari, it is quite clear that the electronic elements really aren't the focus of the record. Rather, electronic elements are merged, almost seamlessly, with conventional pop and jazz instrumentation, to create a re-imagined era of 1970s easy listening where robots were used exclusively for vocal duties. When you think about it, this record is really odd, especially considering the 1990s was the decade where the break beat reigned supreme. What do you think, Klinger?
Klinger: Man, I am so relaxed right now I don't even know what to say. This whole record -- it's like a hot bath for my ears. I put it on and after about 30 seconds of "La femme d'argent" my brain just melts into a soft gooey brain-paste of mellowosity. I'm sure that there are other songs throughout Moon Safari that lively up the proceedings somewhat, but frankly by that point my muscles have atrophied and I can hardly move to nod my head, let alone dance or anything. That is the intended effect, right? I'd hate to think I'm doing it wrong.
But I dig what you're saying about the idea that this music is a good bit more organic than one might think. There are of course major elements of jazz at play here, although it's jazz of a decidedly post-Bitches Brew bent. And I am frequently put in the mind of other late 1960s/early '70s touchstones throughout the album -- John Barry movie soundtracks, TV variety show arrangements, etc. Curiously, I don't have any particular fondness for any of those things, but somehow when they come together here I am for whatever reason unirritated. Why do you reckon that is, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: It's hard to be irritated by the music of Air -- I find it unnerving after a while but I never leave irritated. There is nothing jarring, there is no overt bombast and everything is pleasant. Even when they pick up the pace and make the robots sing a little harder on songs like "Sexy Boy" or "Kelly Watch the Stars", there is still a decidedly laid back vibe. It's also hard to be annoyed at Air's fictionalized re-imagining of the musical past, as they take all the good bits, the great arrangements, funny pop turns and jazzy meandering and create something decidedly new, yet immediately recognizable.
While Air did lift a great deal of material out of those old movie soundtracks, 70s jazz and easy listening and TV arrangements, it was the music of Serge Gainsbourg, a fellow Frenchman and profferer of laid back cool, that Godin and Dunkel find most of their inspiration. The bulk of Moon Safari is just a combination of Gainsbourg and old-school, psychedelic electronic, the most notable proponent of which might be Vangelis. Go listen to some Gainsbourg then put on the Blade Runner soundtrack. If you were to somehow combine both of those records, you would get Moon Safari.
Klinger: OK, so it's a big soothing amalgam of a lot of things that, by 1998, mainstream types had long ago lost interest in. I'm with you on all of that. There was a lot of that going around in the '90s. We talked about that a lot back when we were discussing Beck's Odelay. And I like that aspect of that decade—come to think of it, it's one of the few things I like about those years. As it happens, I also find myself enjoying those moments when the Air guys let the robots take five and hand the mic over to Beth Hirsch. "You Make It Easy" and "All I Need" have a certain sultry something that invariably starts to pull me out of my opioid haze.
But what is it about Moon Safari that has placed the album here on the Great List? It appears that this record did remarkably well in a lot of end-of-the-year lists, even here in the US, but do you think it's still as highly regarded these days? I could be making unfair assumptions, but I get the feeling that the electronic genres are a bit more fickle than others, with a tendency to see things as passé rather than classic. Am I wrong there? And if not, does Air transcend all that?
Mendelsohn: Honestly, I think only time will tell. Air stands out in the 1990s as something different. Moon Safari was electronica that you could enjoy without the club, very much along the lines of Massive Attack's Blue Lines. At the same time, Air was doing something completely different from every other electronic artist. The rave culture was huge in the 1990s. House, trance and especially break beat, fueled by samplers and drum machines, were the modus operandi of the era, and most of popular electronic music was an update of the break beat, early house scenes that came out of the 1980s. Air was composing organic electronica, focusing on the arrangements and writing actual pop music by taking elements from much further back and weaving them onto the tapestry of the ever-evolving electronic music scene.
We are at that point in the list where many of these records could move up or down significantly as time passes and tastes change. So I wouldn't be surprised if Moon Safari drops but it is where it is on the Great List because of how well it did in the 1990s and how well it set itself apart from the rest of the pack, especially considering how diverse 1998 was when it came to music. The top three albums from 1998 were Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Air's Moon Safari and Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. What's even more surprising is just how well electronica was received in 1998. In the top 25 from that year there are no fewer than seven records that are electronic or heavily based on electronic music. Air carved out a niche both in 1998 and on the Great List by thinking differently about not only electronic composition but music in general.
Klinger: OK, I was right there with you until the very end of your analysis. I just can't wrap my head around the idea that Moon Safari, as pleasant and likeable as it is, is offering up a different way of thinking about music in general. Is there something here I'm not grasping? There were plenty of artists who were repurposing old sounds to create something new -- in fact, we've already covered several good examples, from the Beastie Boys to Portishead. That sifting through the detritus of earlier ages became a key ingredient of '90s culture, and by the time the decade was out it felt pretty well worn out. I do appreciate that Air's appropriations were a good bit more subtle than many. I can see where that would have an impact.
I can see that Air offers up a much warmer version of electronic music than we've typically heard. My take on trip-hop and other forms has always been how cold and sterile it all seems (which is why for years my brain automatically imagined German automobile commercials whenever I heard electronica-type stuff), and Moon Safari somehow brings an soft-light, analog feel to the proceedings. Is that enough to consider it a breakthrough? (And I hate to be asking you so many questions, but I'm still trying to place the elements of this era in a context that's meaningful to me, especially because I was already feeling too old for it while it was going on.)
Mendelsohn: The thing that sets Air apart was their approach to making electronic music. The electronic groups we've encountered thus far on the Great List—Massive Attack, Kraftwerk, DJ Shadow—were either sample-driven or synth driven. Air used both synths and samples but neither acted as the crux of the music they were making. Electronics were no longer the tool that was used to make the music, but rather just another instrument, like, say, a tuba. I may be splitting hairs but I think it's an important distinction and one that see's Air pushing music forward in a very interesting way.
Plus, as you noted, a lot of electronica tended to come across as cold, dour, mood music. Air brought a little bit of lightness to the proceedings. It no longer sounds that refreshing since it's been done to death but at one point it was new and innovative.
Klinger: I get it, man. I get it. And I'm not just saying that because I can't seem to move under my own power. It's groovy, man. All so groovy…