There’s something undeniably French about the work of electronic duo Air—which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, as both Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel hail from Versailles. But it goes beyond simple geography. There’s a sound they draw on that goes back decades, a rhythmic weightlessness that hides a good deal of emotional complexity and some truly surprising melodic turns. They create a soothing noise that surrounds its audience, cocooning them in an ambient pop atmosphere where synthesizers, modified vocals and comforting movements all work in unison to build this seamless blend of aesthetics.
Godin and Dunckel craft a familiarity that goes beyond simple influence. Their work becomes a true homage to the sounds of Chanson Française and Yéyé, but all filtered through an electronic lens. There were plenty of artists in the late ’90s trying to mine these sounds, but few were able to pull them off with any sense of conviction. Air was one of those bands who could lay claim to a unique perspective on such a fashionable noise. They weren’t looking to capitalize on a sustained trend; their songs (unlike those of, say, Moby or Groove Armada) didn’t lose their relevance years after they were released. They still pack a considerable emotional punch, still ecstatic in their realization of these dreamy electronics.
Godin and Dunckel’s history goes back to their time attending the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Versailles, where Godin studied architecture and Dunckel was a math student. They also kept time together in a band called Orange in the ’80s alongside Alex Gopher, Xavier Jamaux and Jean de Reydellet. Gopher and Jamaux would go on to provide remixes for some of Air’s songs. In the beginning, however, Godin worked alone, recording demos with members of Funkadelic. But soon, he and Dunckel were remixing other artists’ work. They released “Premiers Symptômes” in 1995, their first EP of original material.
And it is on this collection of five tracks that they first began to show just how adept they were at synthesizing these sounds. With their earlier remixes, there is an inkling, but they were still only working with someone else’s music. Here, the full range of their abilities comes through. The record isn’t without some hesitation on their part; they are still finding their footing, to be sure. But the sound is so luxuriant and welcoming that it is difficult not to be immediately mesmerized by its smooth motions and rippling melodies. Godin and Dunckel seem to revel in their own unpredictable natures, to embrace this electronic ambience with a mixture of rebelliousness and euphoric determination.
But it was on their official debut LP, “Moon Safari,” which came along in 1998, that they found the pure distillation of their synthetic-organic musical mixture. It is electronica, but without all the bland and unavoidable connotations that that label would suggest. It is an amalgam of sounds, a woozy blend of airy arrangements, rock flourishes and circuital pathways. The band floods each track with gorgeous rhythms and moody voices. There are moments when Godin and Dunckel seem to be having a sly laugh at the very sounds they’re working with, but they never approach them from any sort of derogatory perspective.
There may be an awareness of the occasionally fey environments through which they’re wandering, but it comes across as more of a gentle poke than any sort of barbed observation. Like their audience, the band is ultimately beguiled by these sounds and finds countless ways to inject their own spontaneity into the ebb and flow of each song. The opening track, “La femme d’argent,” is a seven-minute treatise on Air’s overall direction, a casual coolness composed of tropicalia, French romanticism and electronic detours that insulates your senses against the outside world. Drawing inspiration from artists like Stereolab and Françoise Hardy, the song welcomes us into the cavernous heart of its idyllic surroundings.
But the song that most people remember from “Moon Safari” is “Sexy Boy,” a track that found a great deal of success on college radio and paved the way for a much larger cross-section of people to be exposed to their music.
Brooding in its down-tempo inclinations and joyous when needed, the album finds a delicate equilibrium between its disparate inspirations. They formed this musical narrative with such a clarity of vision that you are never really aware of how vast the reservoir of influences is—it is just Air, and it holds you spellbound and comforted.
Tracks such as “Kelly Watch the Stars” and “You Make It Easy” find the band playing around with pop sounds that incorporate electronic accents rather than the other way around. They are infectious and breezy, filled with laser blips and thick synths that echo from one ear to the other. They were lovable pop-heads and weren’t ashamed to show their love for the genre’s more buoyant tendencies. But those undulating electronic landscapes are never far behind and would often run parallel to the more pop-oriented production choices.
“Moon Safari” is a time capsule of late ’90s techniques and ideologies. Although that may make it seem like its relevance has waned, that’s certainly not the case. These tracks retain their power to move and influence your senses. This roiling sea of electronica, modernist pop and French history could only have come together under a very specific set of circumstances Thankfully, Godin and Dunckel were well-versed in all these areas and able to create one of the greatest impressionistic portraits of ’90s music. This is music to sink into, to escape the world for a time. It is lovely there, and Air welcomes you with a smile and open arms.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.