Air - 10000 Hz Legend
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Air’s follow-up to Moon Safari was the quintessence of sophomore failings. Sugar, we wanted more sugar. And, whump, here’s a little salt for your tea. Their Parisian electro-lounge had corrupted itself in the intervening three years between the modern ‘chill-out’ classic Moon Safari and 10,000 Hz Legend. The duo, so the simple story went, overextended themselves in willful attempts at experimentation, and the results, though praised sporadically in the media, were largely scorned by the same rabid fans who had played Moon Safari to every prospective freshman compatriot in the hopes of showing them some giddy strangeness, some glimpse of the gifts of alternative, and Christ maybe even foreign, electro-pop music. 10,000 Hz Legend was instead like bitters sucked down for hiccups we didn’t want relieved. Delegated to used record bins from that day, in many ways it seems all too-easy to lionize this awkward second album now. It’s about time to embrace it like Pinkerton and say this is it, this is the one. That’s what I plan to do. Because it’s true.
Where Moon Safari was a slick star-burst of languid French electronica, complete with the world-wide hit “Kelly Watch the Stars,” 10,000 Hz Legend was shaped by a world cut off from light, strangled through the dim sounds and confused silences of a land in shade. Combining Meddle-era Pink Floyd acoustic guitar parts, something the band used prominently on both the Virgin Suicides Soundtrack and the failed City Reading soundtrack, with jagged beats and glorious choruses that sound like Mozart’s Requiem Mass conceived in an oxygen-bar and sung atop the Notre-Dame, Air had to have known just haw overwhelming the record would seem upon release. There were no singles. They had Beck in tow, but Christ even his contributions were more his own than the band’s. The album wandered as if created across an archipelago, each song writhing in its unique voice through the steamy sounds and cold nights of individual islands. A stretch of eleven: distant and close enough to call an album. Perhaps.
With passing time though, 10,000 Hz Legend stands as the band’s high-water mark, to this point at least. We jumped the gun on their failures. They were to emerge elsewhere, in the miserable experiment of City Reading and the over-rated Talkie Walkie. Here, they perfect the post-aught mixture of rabid paranoia and good-time groove-boxing, spreading their weariness over the kind of languorous electronic creations that soothe as much as they burn-cold. The compositions here are easily their most complicated, as they forego simplistic hooks for slow delays in energy and burst. The music is an almost absurd grab-bag, and yet with each listen it seems to make more sense as an obtuse pop record.
“How Does it Make You Feel?” uses a rough computerized voice to tell a story of hard-wired love and pleading, built atop simple acoustic guitar rolls and an anthemic chorus. Desperate and desirous, the song’s plaintive guitar parts are quite familiar to Air fans, but here they are used as intro and outro, lost in the brimming chorus and Air’s final punch line (“Well, I really think you should quit smoking”).
Following the steady electro-pop of “Feel?” “Radio #1” is a chugging mass of synths and road-house beats, featuring skewed-pop-singer Jason Falkner. Fluid and ascendant, and featuring another of the album’s incredible choruses, this is as close to dance-floor froth as the duo would get here. With a rippling piano line and a shaved beat, synthetic voices swell around the chanted titular phrase and capture the incandescent glam of Gary Glitter and T Rex for the studio-era.
But the album’s best track is probably its most irritating on first listen. “Wonder Milky Bitch” starts like a galloping John Wayne story seen through the end of the crack pipe. After the rollicking poings and more of Air’s trademarked-via-Floyd guitar strums, a reverbed piano begins to play. The acoustic guitars take the reins again, and a bayou-deep voice, tinted by an Island accent, begins to sing: “This is the story of a country girl / Back in town from her country house / She came to me with her muddy boots / She destroyed all my carpets.” It’s the same peculiar brand of humor the band showed on “How Does It Make You Feel?” but here it glows with the smarmy wryness of classic-era Serge Gainsbourg. Overtly sexualized, almost lascivious, the broad-chested narrator fills the song with compliment and desire.
Of course, one of the album’s indie-fire selling points was Beck’s appearance. Perhaps making more sense market-wise than musical, “The Vagabond” is another Beck chug-along, replete with lounged-up country-tonk and harmonica. It’s a quick break for the record, as Beck’s personality seems to dominate the tune. It might have worked better as a b-side or a file-trading fave than an album track, and briefly grinds the album to a half, despite Air’s best attempts to grace it with Martian bleeps and ringing chimes. Interestingly, it shows the direction Beck was moving for Sea Change, and it’s no accident how often Gainsbourg was cited as an influence given the way he guides both Air and Beck here.
“Don’t Be Light” is another affair entirely, as Beck settles into the album’s flow, content to play a part and not a whole. In fact, his efforts are barely noticeable at first, as the song begins with a swooning chorus and propulsive beat-work. Electronic guitars spark and heat as the song gains pace, and suddenly, in one of the track’s several break-neck stops and schizophrenic face-lifts, there’s Beck’s husky desert croon. Whiskered across an airy electronic industry-scape, Beck drops a few lines seemingly lifted from the ominous cut-up tales of W. Burroughs: “The grey surprises of our days / Singing in caves / Fabricating a new abandon / We don’t see our master’s hand.”
Despite a brief mid-album stall between “The Vagabond” and the freezer-burned “Lucky and Unhappy,” 10,000 Hz Legend is ultimately far more consistent than its critics initially claimed. It has a gasped breath that takes a few listens to get, but once you understand its wheezy rhythms, the overall experience—and it is that, far more than a track-by-track layout—proves more substantial than its platinum-blonde predecessor. Moon Safari seemed to date within two weeks; I’ll wager a guess none of you has even played it in five years. Given the challenging arenas into which European pop was moving at the time—Kid A/Amnesiac, Agaetis Byrjun, and Hot Shots II for starters—10,000 Hz Legend makes more sense in a larger context, removed from the glow of the album to which it will always be compared. It is a landmark record, one that showed by example, rather than command, how to watch the stars.