’m not trying to be cheeky, but Air is always taken for granted. I think they like it that way. The French duo churns out one plate of living-room soundfiller after another to essentially the same critical and popular reception—bearded twentysomethings and mob-mentality ad agencies the world over. Almost every Air review can be reduced to some cry of “background music” or “inoffensive plating for polite dinner conversation.” By now, that’s all we seem to ask of them. Impossible to hate, tailored for any winter space in need of a little cozy, but more importantly, perhaps incapable of being LOVED.
That’s where this debate lies. What exactly is it you want from Air? What are they supposed to be to you? When I heated up over Pocket Symphony’s Wonderbread functionality amongst the Stylus staffers, I got hit again and again with “But, this is what they are. How can you hate this? It goes damn well with salmon and undercooked mushrooms.” But I think Air was, at one point, a band worthy of devotion, the kind of duo capable of, I don’t know, progress. It didn’t have to be this way. After their work on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, Air issued 2001’s 10,000 Hz Legend, a bruised, willfully eccentric collection of neo-prog rock and odd electronic pop. For the first time in the band’s history, they were pushing themselves beyond screensaver music. Not surprisingly, public reception was puzzled at best and offended at worst. Where the fuck was “Sexy Boy, Deux”? And, sure, those descending synth lines sound kind of cool on “Radio #1,” but you can’t really dance or, more importantly with Air, READ to it.
I think, at that point, Air formed a comfort-food identity. They soundtracked Italian author Alessandro Baricco for City Reading, and tellingly, completely submerged their music to Baricco’s recitation. The duo’s material felt weightless and puzzling beneath Baracco’s dark lyricism, and 2004’s Talkie Walkie was yet another patently pleasant offering with little standout material, ultimately with about the same potency and endurance as Trident. In all those sterling silver kitchens, those granite-topped industrial spaces, those crude college dorms, Air was the fly on our collective wall.
With the release of Pocket Symphony, it’s time to talk “nadir.” Again produced by the band with the help of Nigel Godrich, Pocket Symphony sees Air stripping back its sound to near nudity, often circling around stark, repetitive piano or acoustic guitar refrains and Nicolas Godin’s new fondness for classical Japanese instruments like the koto and shamisen. Their sense of space is starved. But what’s so immediately obvious—strike that—what becomes clear after months of listening and waiting for something (anything!) to stick, is that this is the band’s most listless, amelodic effort to date. Even Talkie Walkie had the pinging splashes of “Run” and the gorgeous, Pluto-skyline rockabilly of “Alpha Beta Gaga.” Pocket Symphony, however, instills boredom even in its guests. They manage to make Jarvis Cocker sound blasé on “One Hell of a Party.” Likewise, the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon is forced to carry the weak lite koto-and-strings arrangement of “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping.”
To be fair, Dunckel and Godin have it no easier with their own creations. On “Napalm Love,” Dunckel, in his best childhood-outcast voice, stumbles through the lyrical gaffes and awkward pacing that marred his solo album as Darkel. And when they up the tempo on “Mer du Japon,” he can’t meld his soft mutterings to the increase in speed, and it leads to a split-personality of sorts. Even those who only looked to Air to put a little noize in the null moments of weekend banter will have a hard time finding a use for much of this material; their sense of the vapid is pressing now. Like a print so insipid it dominates the room, you’re left to wonder why your host even bothered to frame it.