Air, Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, are melody men. In spite of the entrenched sarcasm and in spite of the distanced persona throughout their music, they never stray far from melody, always carefully modulating keys or shifting to an enharmonic chord to affect their gradations of mood. This is what made Air’s Moon Safari so compelling: the way they were able to convey warmth at the same time as sarcasm. An album with songs as witty as “Sexy Boy” would have been merely good without the full atmosphere and song writing. But Moon Safari made you swoon at the same time as it made you laugh. You could giggle at the astral kitsch of “New Star in the Sky” and still feel something sincerely radiant in the same strains, a truly charmed combination.
On their latest release, Talkie Walkie, Air’s produced a firmly interesting and even at times exhilarating album. Though – and they’re going to hear a lot of this – it of course doesn’t approach the luster of Moon Safari. It’s not nearly as fully rendered an experience. But they do manage something new, something very compelling in its parts.
The crux of Air’s song writing is as present as always: the languid guitar arpeggios, the strong sense of melody, the tongue-in-cheek tone throughout. But the dazzle of Talkie Walkie is centered on its sound, which they’ve moved up several years, away from the spacey Moog and into the glossier synth pop emboss of the Yamaha DX7.
Always conscious of maintaining a level of non-obviousness, Air’s pursued the dark and distanced aura that came along with the air-brushed sounds of Reagan-era smash hits, like the Cars’ “Who’s Going to Drive You Home” or Billy Idol’s “Eyes without a Face”. Listen to the synthetic poignancy in the falling pitch of the synth on the Idol song, equally cheap and moving. Or to the Guiding Light drama in the theme notes to Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You”. There’s a gorgeously artificial decadence to these digital string settings, like make-up on a woman giving birth. And there’s an engagement in these once ever-present but now abandoned sounds.
And, in places, Air captures them beautifully. In “Surfing on a Rocket”, perhaps the most charged track on the album, the dashes of staccato guitar pluck out a magnificently rousing Flock of Seagulls texture. The album’s opening track, “Venus”, makes striking use of that dramatically eerie Gary Numan setting, the one you get by selecting a string voice and turning the modulation wheel up, creating a warbling sound, a bit like a bending saw. Picture the closing chorus of sounds in Gary Numan’s “Cars”, the quivering strings vibrating into discord.
There’s a sense throughout Talkie Walkie of pseudo-conceptual soundscapes, or of the pseudo-beautiful, “beautiful” with quotation marks, like some of Tears for Fears expansive non-radio songs. The leisurely pitch-bending synth solo in “Universal Traveler” conveys the thin aesthetic of the art you see in Chinese restaurants: soft focus waterfalls back-lit in neon, panoramas of a gold-glittered Hong Kong. Cheapness is as much a part of our sensorium as the genuinely beautiful is; there’s a very much worthwhile engagement in exploring such chintzy sounds.
Air uses these synthetic sounds as a context for distance, for absent emotion, in a roughly similar vein as Kraftwerk or Gary Numan explored their apathetic technological aesthetic. The word “run” (in the song “Run”) is sampled and repeated dozens of times over in a cold Kraftwerk-like automation of sentiment. Or listen to the complete mocking tone as they sing “we could be together … lovers forever” in “Venus”. They’re not only offering sarcasm on the worn common places of love song lyrics; they’re taunting the very notion of feeling those sentiments. In its own way, it’s reminiscent of Gary Numan’s anti-emotional robot persona when he sang lines like “I have no intention of saying that I love you.”
There’s a certain vacuity in Air’s persona, in their omnipresent sarcasm especially, that’s both part of their aesthetic’s appeal while also underscoring their limitations. Other than the songs Beth Hirsch sang on Moon Safari, I can’t recall a single sincere line in their entire body of work. There’s a nihilistic sense – akin to the same indifference in Radiohead – that nothing means anything, including bothering to elaborate on the fact that nothing means anything. Many of the songs on Talkie Walkie are lacking in fullness from this missing conviction, not only in lyrics but in the overall sense of the work, which words help convey. “Alone in Kyoto,” for instance, worked well as a background in Lost in Translation, but when listened to on its own it implies much more substance than it presents. Talkie Walkie, as well as 10,000 Hz Legend, stumbles through topics that are either potentially profound or potentially ironic without fully exploring which aspect they want to present. (The very title Talkie Walkie is almost appallingly pointless. The only thing possibly witty about it – what, the backwards play on walkie talkie? – isn’t at all significant.)
It’s their music, obviously, that gets them where they are. And all the songs on Talkie Walkie are interesting; they’re all carefully constructed and they’re all at least partially wonderful. But they’re promising of so much more; even within the sphere of sarcasm, within cynicism, within disaffection, there’s so much more possible.