Inane Thoughts: Diary of a Frustrated Writer

Air’s Moon Safari was an album of Gallic sensual soft-core beauty, which sound-tracked a thousand teenage bedroom adventures (and probably a few misadventures). Their sound then spawned (not literally, though they probably came damn close to making music that could literally impregnate) a series of sound-alikes who traded on the “soft” side, but usually misplaced any of the beautiful oddness that had made Moon Safari so good.

By the time they came to record their follow up, the dance-music-that-you-can’t-actually-dance-to genre had entered the mainstream and was close to saturation point. “Chill-out” albums were everywhere, all of which seemed to featured Air songs like Sexy Boy, but also featured songs from Moby (yawn) or Morcheeba (urgh). Originally this sort of music had been written to soundtrack a comedown, yet it sounded like most of the people making this music had never experienced a comedown, but had heard about the phenomenon and wished to cash in on the market. Usually the vulnerable market was reserved for bands like Westlife and Michael Buble, who exclusively catered for the elderly and infirm, yet these bands discovered that there was another group of vulnerable people, ripe for the taking: clubbers who had quadrospazzed on a lifeglug after a night banging back enough ecstasy and ketamine to make Brian Harvey’s brain fold. Oh, and the interminably boring, let’s not forget what a great market they always are (interesting fact: boring people account for around 98.7% of David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ album sales).

Air were several cuts above their imitators, which they showed intermittently on The Virgin Suicides OST. No-one was expecting what they heard when they returned for their second album proper in 2001: ‘10,000 Hz Legend’. This was a deliberately obtuse record, designed to push away as many casual listeners as possible. The NME declared it “the new prog”, but although Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel had committed the cardinal sin of wearing wizard hats on stage, this didn’t sound like Yes or Pink Floyd. I presumed this was a pejorative euphemism: what the critics really meant was that this was “boring”. Even though I remember loving the record at the time, in the years in between it’s the “boring” tag that has stuck in my mind. With that in mind (or rather, pushing it out of my mind), it’s time to sit down and re-evaluate.

The first thing that occurs to me, 20 seconds into ‘Electronic Performers’ is that this really isn’t boring. It’s not even really that odd by the standards of a lot of successful music around now. Certainly not considering that Animal Collective’s last album went platinum. It feels as though this album came out at precisely the wrong time, just when the music press were beginning to get excited about five young, posh, scruffily pretty kids from New York. These were not 3 or 4 minute pop songs with breathy Gallic vocals. These were songs heavily influenced by Kraftwerk and Krautrock, with spoken word computerised vocals.

The concept of the album seems to be: what would music sound like if it were made by computers and how would it make you feel? The second track explicitly poses this question, with the verses using that Stephen Hawking voice, previously used by Radiohead on ‘Fitter Happier’ and the choruses comprised of a beautiful melody sung angelically. The whole album feels as though it’s been made to deliberately provoke the casual listener into turning off. The follow up track, the lead single ‘Radio #1’ is the closest the album comes to a Moon Safari track, but it ends with an imaginary DJ singing over the track. It must have baffled radio stations, but there’s a whiff of the sort of sixth form prank here (it reminds me of a scene in Peep Show where Jez and Superhans change their band name to ‘Various Artists’ just to fuck with iTunes). They tackle sex, in the shape of a girl who gives great blowjobs (‘Wonder Milky Bitch’), but the story is told using computerised vocals, seemingly to deliberately turn off those who saw them as a “sex” band. It’s hilarious and infuriating in equal measure. There is a straight track in the shape of ‘The Vagabond’, with Beck on guest vocals, though even this ends with Beck singing in the falsetto voice he used on the knowingly ironic ‘Midnite Vultures’, then laughing. This album wore its knowing irony very obviously on its sleeve.

However, in the midst of all this winking and nodding, there are a couple of tracks that are absolutely stunning. ‘Radian’ starts out with droning electronics and a plaintive voice, building into a pulsating beat, before segueing into acoustic folk and finally into a gorgeous piano refrain. ‘Don’t Be Light’ is absolutely astounding. It’s a symphony crammed into six minutes. Celestial vocals segue into electronic, which in turn becomes a pulsating Neu!-esque groove with scuzzy guitar solos crammed over the top, before it once again changes, falling into a spoken word section, then finally collapsing back into the Krautrock grooves, but with the guitar solo replaced with jaunty whistling. It’s mind-blowing.

The final track ‘Caramel Prisoner’ is comparatively low-key, but it’s incredibly fragile, fallible and above all human. Across the course of the record there doesn’t seem to be enough of this. In fact, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this is an album that is easier to admire than it is to love. There are some glorious moments, but it seems to bypass the thing that made, say, Kraftwerk’s albums so easy to love: heart.

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