Fresh Air

With Talkie Walkie, the enigmatic French keyboard maestros go toward the light

I'm part of a small group of music fans holding out hope that someday, 10,000 Hz Legend will be recognized as the overlooked masterpiece that it so obviously is. The second proper album by chilled-out French keyboard maestros Air, Legend is a darker, weirder piece of work than the duo's celebrated debut, 1998's Moon Safari; it illuminates a tangled world of sexy robots, melancholy snipers, caramel prisoners, radios playing into outer space and a rare species of human the band calls the "wonder milky bitch." Well, maybe the album doesn't illuminate these things so much as lay them out with no concern for logic or comprehension whatsoever. The thing makes no sense at all--a quality practically every one of the album's reviewers noted with disdain at the time of its release.

But it's a singularly lovely piece of music nonetheless: a delirious fusion of down-tempo Moog fuzz, surplus prog-rock guitar slime, disembodied Ennio Morricone desertscape twang and black-light space-station power-pop that improbably retains an aura of hipness despite its makers' best efforts at the opposite. If Moon Safari, a relatively lightweight meringue of continental cool, convinced a million fashionistas to buy that overpriced pair of Prada sneakers in the window, then Legend told 'em to trade the shoes in for a wizard's cape and cheap sunglasses. When I call up Nicolas Godin, Air's ginger-haired half, at home in Paris, I'm stoked to find that he shares my view.

"I really love 10,000 Hz Legend, which is very misunderstood," Godin says in exactly the kind of pinched nasal accent you'd expect him to have. "Which I understand, because it's very complicated. We were living a very hard time for us in our personal lives during that album. Our lives were very destructured." (He tells me later that he and partner Jean-Benoît Dunckel were in a boat, and that boat was in a storm.) "But I hope one day 10,000 Hz Legend will be like Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys--the cool second album that was not a big success but is very amazing. It's just--every time we try to do something, we try to do something different than we did before."

"I thought it was pretentious to make personal albums," says Air's Nicolas Godin, right. "But the fact is that we did it on this one." Godin and partner Jean-Benoît Dunckel play Nokia Live on Saturday.
Claude Gassian
"I thought it was pretentious to make personal albums," says Air's Nicolas Godin, right. "But the fact is that we did it on this one." Godin and partner Jean-Benoît Dunckel play Nokia Live on Saturday.

They've succeeded in that respect. Talkie Walkie, Air's new album, retreats a good way from Legend's enigmatic darkness (as well as from the slightly wispier darkness of the outfit's sumptuous score for Sofia Coppola's 2000 film The Virgin Suicides), back toward a lighter, cozier place. Not quite the same mellow-yellow pleasure center essayed on Moon Safari but a flower-strewn hothouse of lounging lovers and prissy poets, where longhaired flute players stroll the grounds unbothered and there's a glass-walled elevator you can take to a penthouse where guys with steaming cups of hot chocolate sit cross-legged on the floor wondering what took you so long. Godin and Dunckel (and their handful of enablers, including former Jellyfish member Jason Falkner, Ima Robot drummer Joey Waronker and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich) worked with the same raw materials they always use. (Fewer, actually, since the pair handled most of the singing themselves, instead of hiring breathy female guest stars.) But there's a compositional and sonic sophistication to the new music that lends it a bewitching sense of intimacy; tunes like the lulling "Cherry Blossom Girl" and opener "Venus"--which somehow turns a reference to the self-help tome Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus into interstellar sex--sound like they're being whispered directly into your ear. Not altogether surprisingly, the album would've made a great soundtrack for Coppola's Lost in Translation: Air gets the same dizzy rush of sensation out of seemingly familiar notions as the talented writer/director does. (Dreamy closer "Alone in Kyoto" actually did make it onto Translation's soundtrack.) Godin credits Talkie Walkie's intimacy to his and Dunckel's decision to involve themselves in the songwriting for the first time.

"This is the first time really we talk about something personal," he explains. "We wrote songs about things that happen to us, about relationships. 10,000 Hz and Moon Safari were about something else--us as observers, you know? And the fact that we sing together, it makes it the most personal album we've ever done."

Why this time? Why did they wait so long to match the liberal amounts of brain and groin in their music with a helping of heart?

"I thought it was pretentious to make personal albums," Godin answers plainly. "But I think we have the maturity to do it. We say, 'OK, I feel like doing this.' It doesn't mean that we will do it in the future. But at this moment in our life we wanted to say these things. I really don't like the concept of being an artist and breaking down relationships--I think it's boring and pretentious." He laughs. "But the fact is that we did it on this one."

Since Air is, as advertised on Moon Safari's cover, a French band, of course the result is pretentious. And often silly: "Alpha Beta Gaga" overhauls the space-age techno-pop of David Bowie's Berlin era with a plummy chorus of whistles and contrapuntal banjo, and "Surfing on a Rocket" elegantly segues from talk of "flying rockets" and "silver jets" to a reference to "surfing bones"--surely an activity as personal as they come. But Talkie Walkie is never boring, which is quite an accomplishment in Air's field of down-tempo electronica, in which even a record as handsome as Zero 7's new When It Falls can get lost in the hushed shuffle of its own immaculate tastefulness. Despite Godin's reservations, it's actually his and Dunckel's individual eccentricities--"the hills of my chest" in "Run," "Biological"'s creepy details about DNA and "genetic love," the gentle tension between wanderlust and homesickness that drives "Universal Traveler"--that distinguish Air's music. Which is to say that nothing on Talkie Walkie is what anyone with a working knowledge of James Taylor's oeuvre would consider a typical love song.

"Yeah, that's true," Godin says, giggling. "It's because we have our own vibe, you know?"

 
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