10,000 Hz Legend (Astralwerks), the latest from the Parisian electro-pop duo Air, is the slipperiest release since Daft Punk’s Discovery hit the shelves in March. Continuing what seems to be a trend with French electronica acts, Air have followed an earnest and naive debut, 1998’s Moon Safari (Source/Caroline), with an album that seems designed to disappoint, confound, and confuse their fans. Not only does 10,000 Hz Legend recast their trademark softcore lounge pop into a gnarled landscape of acidic synth farts and deadpan cyborg vocals, but the disc jumbles up heart-on-sleeve and tongue-in-cheek in a way that is sure to puzzle irony-challenged listeners.
“We wanted to create something really different and original on this record,” explains Jean-Benoît Dunckel over the phone from New York. “We wanted escape from this French easy-listening image that we had. A lot of people liked that sound — very ambient, put it on in the background and invite some people over and whatever. But you can’t do that now; this is more aggressive.” The easy-listening reputation was the result of Moon Safari and the 1999 collection of singles, Premiers Symptômes (Astralwerks) — where Dunckel and partner Nicolas Godin cooked up wistful head trips through delicate trip-hop, Burt Bacharach–style arrangements, and wiggly analog psychedelica. Conjuring images of dewy Sunday mornings and melancholy nymphs, Air created the perfect soundtrack for slow seduction, post-coital drift, and cocktail soirees.
But the twisted collages of 10,000 Hz Legend are in tune with the general ethos of the band, who, like Beck, Tortoise, and pretty much any non-punk, electronic-friendly band from the past 10 years, create music that is a post-modern patchwork of influences — with visible seams. Air’s soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (Astralwerks, 2000) was a dead-on imitation of Dark Side of the Moon–era Pink Floyd, complete with breathy saxophone solos and pained guitar cries. The moody shadow of Floyd still looms over this latest album, but as Dunckel points out, 10,000 Hz Legend is the product of a new set of listening habits: Kraftwerk, Lee Hazlewood’s quirky Nancy Sinatra productions, the Beatles’ White Album. Plus, a little bit of Neu! pops up in the psych-rock groove of “Don’t Be Light,” and “Radian” is a faux mystical stoned-flute jam that recalls film-music maestro Lalo Schifrin.
These cuts are among the album’s best, and when Air keep it instrumental, they are still capable of gorgeous electro-pop epiphanies. But as Dunckel points out, “this is a real album, not just a collection of songs and influences.” Implying that it’s filled with messages and concepts — an ominous prospect. And its theme? Well, that’s unclear. Opening with “Electronic Performers” and “How Does It Make You Feel?”, Air seem to have graduated from grade-school earnest to post-grad ironic. The music is dead serious — all drum-machine dirge, orchestral string drama, and sensitive folk strums — but the lyrics are kitschy robo-cheeze. “I want to patch my soul on your brain,” deadpans the Speak n’ Spell voice on “Electronic Performers.” “How Does It Make You Feel?” is a love ballad sung from the perspective of HAL. The effect is at once hilarious and unsettling.
Immediately after this pair of tunes, however, Air launch into a string of songs about the monotony of modern life, the loneliness of the open road, and that existential angsty stuff. Despite the cut-rate pretentiousness of the lyrics, these tunes have actual melodies, and they work. Beck lays down harmonica and white-boy soul yelps over the folksy stroll of “The Vagabond”; “Lucky and Unhappy” sounds like Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin having phone sex over the Knight Rider theme song. But then there’s the lame Johnny Cash-on-’ludes blow-job fantasy “Wonder Milky Bitch” and the paranoid sci-fi bomb “Sex Born Poison.” It’s like a puzzle that doesn’t fit together.
And Dunckel is no help at deciphering this mess of retro-futurist hogwash, wink-wink jokes, and absurdist poetry — after admitting that he “falls in love” with his electronic equipment and explaining the Jack Kerouackian qualities of “The Vagabond,” he quips that “nothing is serious” on the album. Which only strengthens my suspicion that Air have lost their way. 10,000 Hz Legend is a brave and audacious release, with more than a few moments of otherworldly beauty. But all the analog keyboards and vintage drum machines in the world can’t change the fact that Air do better being smooth, mellow, and lovely than dark, moody, and dour.