here are two camps on Air (the French band; I think there’s only one camp on air). The first, and the largest, believes that their debut, Moon Safari, was an unassailable masterpiece. Its liquid-smooth sense of whimsy caught the indie world unaware and brought European space-lounge to the masses. Setting the template for every retro-futuristic chill-out album that’s appeared since, so the argument went, Air had perfected a style. To quote the old Carly Simon song, “Nobody does it better.” And why would you even try?
The second group, mainly a distempered and impassioned crew that just so happens to include myself, extols 10,000 Hz Legend as the band’s true high-water mark. With bizarre neo-prog stylings and often hyperbolic, tongue-firmly-in-cheek charm, it took the pop-muzak of Moon Safari and stretched it until it was unrecognizable, leaving the mannered Gainsbourgian pop only vaguely intact. These new acidic ventures sampled from different genres and emerged as a bizarre Teutonic glam. Almost unforeseeable from the band that had first charmed us with Moon Safari, 10,000 Hz Legend was destined to bring nuclear-grade fallout. Critics and fans alike squinted at the offering as too unconventional or nonsensical, overlooking the merits of the work itself in favor of enforcing a linear progression to the band’s development. Seemingly, Air had skipped through four albums worth of music and released a far-reaching epic into a world that had only asked for its proper follow-up.
For those of you who felt cheated by 10,000 Hz Legend, Talkie Walkie should tame your frustrations. Limber with astrofolk sing-alongs and soaring instrumentals, this is the follow-up that 10,000 Hz Legend never could have been. It mines the iconic territory of both albums while never really reaching beyond their patented sonic bliss. The chimes and squiggling synths on “Run” are forlorn reminders of this sound. While synths ride on soft, flat-tire beats, a floating choir hovers over the break and against the vocals’ single stuttering syllable. With its vocoder-hazed vocals and its greasy-midnight tone, this might have been a leftover from The Virgin Suicides Soundtrack.
“Alpha Beta Gaga” is easily the most addicting song Air has ever created. As a helicopter beat spills open on a guitar straight out of the Maharishi’s songbook, hypnotic whistling begins over blithe strings. The electronic whirlwind grinds to a halt, and a banjo plucked for the jamboree begins one of the album’s rare moments where Air seems to wish to expand on their past. If you can get past this one without hitting repeat at least once, you’re braver than I am.
Yet, for those moments of novelty, several songs seem like regressions. “Universal Traveler” is rank with an unbecoming simplicity. Tocking with an e-cowbell and revolving acoustic guitars, it eventually begins to sound like Seal-cum-Neil Young. The instrumentation lacks Air’s vivid, lazy-day dynamics and comes off as just lazy. When the Vivaldi-esque keys begin on “Track Five,” they recapture their lustrous sense of wonder momentarily, but as the piano gives out to nondescript strings and guitar, the inspiration fades. They wind up sounding like one of their own chillout knockoffs.
Perhaps this is the problem. Without question, Moon Safari spawned more pretenders than McDonald’s. Have we been so bombarded with cheap European electro-lounge since 1998 that we’ve lost the scent of the real thing? Has the world caught up with Air? Given the genre-splicing we witnessed on 10,000 Hz Legend, Talkie Walkie sometimes seems like white-bread Air, like a fractured spin-off of Moon Safari. Much like Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, it winds up sounding like an album that should’ve preceded their last. For many, that’s all that can be asked. For me, that’s not enough. For all of us, there’s “Alpha Beta Gaga.”