Pocket Symphony

(Astralwerks; 2007)

By Andre Perry | 13 April 2007

During a dorm party the fall of my senior year, as unfamiliar waves of euphoria peaked around the edges of my face and body, I had a revelation. It was AIR’s Moon Safari (1998) and it couldn’t have hit me at a better moment. The electronic grooves (how applicable is that word? I shall use it often) and jazzy French-pop stylings sucked me in; I could literally see the bubbles of synth floating around the room. Well.not literally, but Moon Safari quickly entered into my stack of classic albums and has remained there ever since. It became a personal soundtrack: warming me up before adventurous nights and cooling me down during after-hours sessions. Then, when I picked up AIR’s next record, the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides (2000), my first reaction was “where the fuck are my space-grooves?” followed by “I certainly won’t listen to this before heading out to a party” and even later by “this album only works when I’m feeling obtuse and depressed.”

I was eventually willing to roll with AIR on the Virgin Suicides soundtrack. The plodding, murky songs were in line with the dark movie and the darker book from which it was adapted. But it was the start of the strained relationship I now have with the band’s music. This is partly their fault: they were so good on their debut. But this is also partly my fault: I wanted them to do more of the same and I approached each successive album expecting the sounds I had heard on Moon Safari. 2001’s 10,000Hz Legend was another letdown, a failed attempt at experimental electronic rock. I feigned apathy about hearing Talkie Walkie (2004); I was neither repulsed nor ecstatic by it, though it was certainly more listenable than 10,000Hz Legend.

With Pocket Symphony I’ve finally come to terms with the cold, hard fact that a return to the sounds of Moon Safari is unlikely. I’ve also stopped hating them for that. While some may argue that the band is incapable of reclaiming its past glories, it seems more likely that they’re not interested in writing the types of songs—groove based electro-pop—that made them popular in the first place. In the era of Moon Safari and the Premiere Symptomes EP (1997) AIR built classic songs like “La Femme D’Argent” and “Sexy Boy” on the backs of head-bobbing bass hooks and beats. At this point it’s more about architecture: elliptical piano lines and circular acoustic guitar motifs mix with Eno-like synthesizer treatments and the occasional Japanese flourish. More than ever the music encourages us to consider it with our headphones on quiet afternoons in a sunlit study or as we take long metro or bus rides across town.

Lyrics have never been the selling point for this band, and AIR continues to be most successful when they rely on vocoders and other vocal effects in lieu of straight-ahead rock singing. I find it especially hard to take Jarvis Cocker’s vocal on “One Hell Of A Party” seriously. Cocker is to blame for the quality of the words, sure, but AIR still lets him deliver this played-out kitsch, earnestly singing about being burned out from the fast life and worn-out relationships. And while on songs like the thickly layered “Napalm Love” the band remains capable of unearthing and creating unique tones, other tracks like the sluggish “Lost Message” feature keyboards and arrangements that seem more like the Sounds of Tomorrow conceived in the mid-seventies.

Two of the standout tracks, “Mer du Japon” and “Space Maker,” represent the band’s best efforts to mix the roar and shimmy of earlier material with their more glacial present. “Space Maker” is a classic smooth and funky AIR track while “Mer du Japon” is a fine piece of up-tempo electronic pop. And if texture is indeed what this band is trying to perfect they’ve done a good job. There aren’t too many bad songs here, but many of the tracks unintentionally bleed into each other, becoming anonymous or sounding like leftovers from Talkie Walkie. As a whole this album sinks into the background like subtle but well-chosen wallpaper; many ambient bands or even film scorers, I think, would be ecstatic to create soundscapes as developed and accomplished as these.

I’d like to say that after Talkie Walkie and Pocket Symphony there’s probably not much else to do with this sound. I’d like to cautiously add that this might mean the band will turn back to their roots in the future. Except.the band already seems to feel they’re doing exactly that. When commenting on another strong album cut, “Mayfair Song,” AIR member Nicolas Godin noted, “when we did Premiers Symptomes we used to do a bass line, get a vibe and that was it. We forgot how to do that and we wanted to get back to that simplicity.” Really? Pocket Symphony is pleasant but not striking. Hopefully the band mates won’t lull themselves into a repetitive comfort zone.