Air: 10,000 Hz Legend

Self-proclaimed “grown-up” album from French duo who created 1998’s million-selling retro-pop classic Moon Safari and inspired many imitators.

IMAGINE “THEY” discovered an opiate-mimicking virus, one that when you caught it seemed to do you no bodily harm but left you in a permanent state of euphoria. Its only apparent side-effect is an occasional attack of the shivers, though you’re always feeling slightly out-there with this beautiful, creepy, incurable condition. Would you take this eternal mind-alterer? Would you seek out that once-only injection of infected serum?

If the answer’s yes — this album’s for you, the nearest science has come so far. If the answer’s no — try it. At least you can switch an album off.

Back when Moon Safari was insinuating itself into the nation’s wine bars, boutiques and TV documentaries, Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel declared themselves to be, first and foremost, composers. Their main interest, they said, was the construction of the music; the atmospheric results were almost a by-product, driven by the use of whatever was at hand when they committed the compositions to tape. And they distanced themselves from the notion of retro-techno: theirs was a largely organic invention, not about its mechanics but its emotion.

Not long afterwards, their studio in Versailles was sold and they were forced to relocate to Paris, since when their work has inhabited a totally altered state. It turns out that the brooding Virgin Suicides soundtrack — an evocation of that movie’s pervading sense of misty nostalgia with a sinister undercurrent — provided a bridge between Moon Safari‘s summery lilt and the Stygian depths of this, their latest work. Did anyone expect Air to return with music marbled with so much delicious melancholy?

Here, over the squelch and throb of a drum machine and a rolling guitar arpeggio, they declare themselves to be Electronic Performers: “We are the synchronisers/Sending messages through time codes,” says a mechanical voice with a French accent. “Machines give me some reason/ Synthesizers give me some wings…/ We search for new programmes for your pleasure.” Next, that Stephen Hawking voice-program asks, “How does this make you feel?”

At first, 10,000 Hz Legend makes you feel distinctly uneasy. Anyone seeking a second helping of the upbeat, brink-of-the-space-age optimism of Moon Safari has come to the wrong chemist’s. This one seems slap in the middle of some

crepuscular, inhuman place. If Moon Safari was The Jetsons, this is Logan’s Run. The bubblegum’s gone; and the only track that might possibly tickle the nation’s trannies in the way ‘Sexy Boy’ or ‘Kelly Watch The Star’s did is ‘Radio #1’ — which would be rendered as a totally cynical stab at airplay if they were British, but here is an oddly austere chant to a martial rhythm. New “grown-up” Air appear to be much more maudlin than the Moon Safari kids. Titles like ‘Lucky & Unhappy’ and ‘Sex Born Poison’ tip the wink.

But once you settle into its desolate vista — and it’ll take a few plays — 10,000 Hz Legend becomes just as addictive as its ancestor. This is rich, deep-pile music reliant on texture rather than pop smarts. You find yourself humming chord sequences or choral parts rather than singing along with the top lines. It demands you let it seep in. Gradually the detail begins to form, like the lovely instrumental ‘Radian’ which, after a neo-eastern start, turns into a little organic symphony of harps, flutes and modulated piano, with delicate, beater-struck drums. Though it provides none of the instant thrill of a ‘Sexy Boy’, it could only be Air.

Also, it slowly dawns, there’s humour in this demi-monde. With that slightly mordant sense of fun characterised by Serge Gainsbourg, now and again Air gently take the piss. The Stephen Hawking voice is advised to quit smoking, the public are admonished “Don’t be light!”, a slo-mo robot serenades blowjobs on ‘Wonder Milky Bitch’. And on ‘Sex Born Poison’ there’s a little musical joke — it all goes weird when the organ comes in! Those crazy French.

One thing breaks the spell. Much as I like him, the use of Beck as guest vocalist on ‘The Vagabond’ was a mistake: suddenly you’re in another record. A recognisable pop presence tarnishes the album’s languorous bloody-weirdness, an under-the-skin atmosphere other bands only dream of.

If you considered Air to be mere lightweight pop dance merchants, 10,000 Hz Legend could blow your mind. If you’ve loved them all along, you’ll have to let this steal into your life like that euphoric disease.


Jean-Benoit Dunckel talks to Jim Irvin.

Looking back, how do you feel about Moon Safari now?

“It was not so bad (laughs). We wanted to escape the ’60s and ’70s references. And we always had the idea to do something very modern and hi-tech, and that’s why ‘Electronic Performers’ is the first track on this album, it’s like a manifesto, saying, Now we have a progressive attitude.”

Moon Safari was very upbeat and optimistic but this is darkly wistful.

“Yeah, maybe because we are getting old now! Moon Safari was like travels through our childhood, and this is more the album of real men. It’s more a look inside our spirit, and we find there some love and some anxiety too.”

Is there any sense that the young men who made Moon Safari became disillusioned?

“No, we have no problem in life. When we did Moon Safari we were so anxious and unconfident, we wanted to express ourselves by doing comfortable music. But on this album, it’s a new way to be violent. We didn’t keep any concept which was weak; it’s all extreme. Maybe the first time you hear it you’re a little bit disturbed by it. But I think it’s important when you hear music to be taken somewhere else. This album has that mission.”

Is France taking any more notice of you?

“Not really. I think the French are very surprised by this album. As we don’t have some big hit single on it, the reaction is strange. Some newspapers don’t really know what to think about it but others really like it because the journalists feel the power of the emotions, the fire and the fever that exist in this album. I think this will be the real album of Air. It’s a good album and a deep album and original. I know that people can feel very weird about it, but we don’t care because it’s a pure expression of what we felt when we did it and we trust that one day people will understand it.”

What did you mean by ‘Don’t Be Light’?

“It’s a message to the people. I know that sounds pretentious, I know nobody cares [laughs], but it’s just to say, Be yourself — don’t be part of the industrial system that wants you to consume some light product. It’s a global idea, you know. We like that. It’s a game with words. We spent three weeks on one song trying to invent some words. The music was easy but the words were difficult. We speak about music, love and, er, sexual fantasies. In fact, all this album is about dreams, but some of them are wet ones!”

© Jim IrvinMOJO, June 2001

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