Air’s debut album Moon Safari, released in 1998, was something of a phenomenon. Beloved by rock-scribes as well as the ambient dance fraternity, it was a calm breeze of dreamy nostalgic French electronica, taking in Serge Gainsbourg, John Barry, the Orb, the Beach Boys, ’60s psychedelia and Jean Michel Jarre. Seemingly coming out of nowhere it duly topped many ‘best of the year album’ polls, a charming and sophisticated antidote to the bloated death throes of Britpop and the bland, smarmy confections of manufactured boy and girl bands.
Subsequent releases offered diminishing returns: 10mhz Legend was an unwelcome journey into the excesses of ‘70s prog rock, Talkie Walkie a not entirely succesful return to the rich soundscapes of their breakthrough album. Best received was a collection of early unreleased work Premiers Symptomes that revealed the templates for their later triumph. They also successfully released the soundtrack to Sophia Copolla’s debut feature The Virgin Suicides. However, the prevailing critical consensus seemed to be that Air might be a one trick pony, milking a sound that was only good enough for the 10 songs that comprised their debut. When they deviated from the sound that brought their initial success it was deemed a pretentious failure, when they returned to it that sound itself was becoming passé. The songs on Darkel, written and performed by Jean-Benoit Dunckel, the first of the duo to release a solo effort, do little to dispel that notion.
What this album most reminded me of was the early post-Beatles work of John Lennon and the fact that, shorn of McCartney’s immense gift for killer harmonies and producer George Martin’s studio Midas touch, he absolutely hated his vocal sound. In order to disguise it, he had it drenched repeatedly in its own echo: “Instant Karma” being a prime example. Coming out from underneath the umbrella of a hugely successful band, it was as though he was all too aware of the vulnerability of standing alone. Bearing in mind that all of the songs containing vocals on Moon Safari were either heavily processed through a Vocoder-esque device, or sung by someone else, one cannot help but feel the same is true of Jean-Benoit Dunckel minus his Air partner Nicolas Godin. The songs are whispered, rather than sung, in shy heavily accented English. One senses an almost palpable discomfort in Dunckel’s vocals, suddenly thrust to the forefront of proceedings, even though musically there is still a familiar lushness of sound.
The press release describes the album as “a funky French version of New Order”, which is about as near the mark as comparing it to Trout Mask Replica. New Order never dealt in nostalgia and this album is suffused with it. Pink Floyd? Yes. John Lennon? Yes. King Crimson? Yes, yes, yes. New Order? Non! Other than the departure from overtly instrumental tracks towards more ‘traditional’ song based pieces this is clearly the work of the man half responsible for “Sexy Boy” and “Cherry Blossom Girl”.
It starts inauspiciously with a dark synthesizer piece that sounds as though it was culled from the soundtrack of one of John Carpenter’s self-scored late ’70s horror flicks, over which Dunckel intones “Be my friend till the end of time”. Despite the Darkel moniker and the album’s black cover this attempt at noir-ish electronica merely grates. “TV Destroy” is another example of this, with a driving punk guitar riff and sloganeering vocals that when sung in Dunckel’s reedy high-pitched lisp sound utterly ridiculous. “At the End of the Sky” is admittedly lyrically twee and trite but reveals Dunckel’s sly gift for late-Beatles style melodies. The first three songs encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of the album; when he reaches for unknown territory it doesn’t come off, when he deals in sweet, dreamy, atmospheric pop music it does. That’s what made Moon Safari such a hit in the first place.
“My Own Sun” would suggest that the Kinks’ records have been enjoying heavy rotation on his stereo of late, being, in the verses, an almost note for note reworking of their classic “Well Respected Man”. This is a jaunty stomp about personal responsibilities and following one’s own path in life and, even if the sentiments expressed are naïve, the whole thing is carried off with such delicious chutzpah it doesn’t matter. “Pearl” is off in the dreamy piano world of John Lennon balladry with all the space and swooshes of keyboard echo that made a large hunk of the populace fall in love with the Air sound.
The cynic in me would conclude that Darkel is a failure, a folly, a vanity project and one not worth repeating. However it is certainly not entirely without its merits. Air fans will find much to enjoy in the glistening electro-string shimmer of “Earth” and many of the songs contain infectiously catchy hooks. What is blatantly obvious is that Mr Dunckel should politely be steered away from the microphone at all future recording sessions. His voice is weak and irritating and reminded me of a feeling I had watching Burt Bacharach murder “Walk on By” at a recent London concert: just because you can write these tunes, doesn’t mean you can sing them, and perhaps you shouldn’t.