Air – Talkie Walkie

Air have been around for 6 years now and have released seven albums, including one movie soundtrack, one remix album and one short story soundtrack. Each of them is quite different from the others, yet it is still possible to hear the unique “Air sound” in each of them. Time for a new step forward with Talkie Walkie.

It all started with Moon Safari (and Premiers Symptômes), the worldwide success we all know that was defined by recognizable vintage instruments creating a catchy, simple yet smart and oneiric atmosphere, rolled in a smooth naïveté that made it unforgettable.

But rather than trapping themselves in that successful mood, they accepted the task of scoring The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s first movie. The result, a breathtaking recollection of 70’s progressive rock hallucinations, earned them respect from critics and musicians alike.

Building up on their relations with multiple talents from the alternative music scene, they released their second “Air album”, 10′000 Hz Legend. Demanding, complex, loud, this journey into the gloomiest parts of imagination surprised many who didn’t recognize Air’s touch in it. Whether it was a desire for emancipation, or simply the wish to tell more adult stories, their soft bright melodies seemed to have been inverted to darkness in that epic, mind-blowing masterpiece.

The next album, a recording of a live side project with Alessandro Baricco, was simply an unnecessary reminder that Air care more for art than for the charts. Providing a background landscape to the Italian author’s tragic stories read aloud, they crafted dark, minimalistic veils of despair.

And now their new album is out. It’s called Talkie Walkie.

The first listening confirms that, despite the breadth of the band’s musical territories, this is still Air as we know them. To many though, Talkie Walkie is a step back to Moon Safari, for it has left behind the darkness of the latest albums for a warmer ambiance. However, a more careful listening will show that they have moved their new set of emotions forward, not backward.

The “retro” prefix associated with Moon Safari and The Virgin Suicides soundtrack rightly defined those albums as melancholic, longing for past times. On the other hand, their followup, 10′000 Hz Legend, was clearly set in a electrorganic hypothetical future.

Talkie Walkie is the present. A present they sing and orchestrate in a deeply sincere way, unlike their masked (sometimes vocoded) presence on the previous albums.

The album begins with Venus, an interstellar love song that sets the tone for the whole album : minimalistic arrangements and passionate lyrics about love. The song introduces us smoothly to the new atmosphere while retaining the usual elements, like the beautiful Solina strings.

Cherry Blossom Girl is the official “hit” of the album, with a parallel EP release and frequent radio broadcasts. However, unlike the tiring Radio #1, it manages to pleasantly merge a radio-friendly feeling and the new sound of Air, namely charming, omnipresent guitar tracks with warm, repetitive electronic machine-drums and samples, plus of course the heavily advertised unmodified voices of Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin.

The third track, Run, is a stand-out song of this album. Calm lyrics start the song with an intimate melody, before entering a loop and suddenly breaking the roof, propelling you to the clouds and above, gliding on dreamy vocal layers. It could have been boring, easy or stereotyped. But this is Air.

The next song does not lower the quality level. Universal Traveler is indeed another hypnotic song you will find yourself listening to over and over again. Once more, soft lyrics, almost whispered into your ears, transport you to another dimension. Nicolas’ perfect guitar playing is only matched by the beautiful combination of sounds found in this track. Thank Nigel Godrich for this incredibly pure sound.

Mike Mills is the title of the fifth track, but also the name of the director of most of Air’s music videos. The song offers another pleasant atmosphere. Starting as a mechanical melody, it develops into some kind of barrel organ symphony until it morphs by introducing dreamlike strings arranged by Michel Colombier. The whole song ends up sounding like the soundtrack for a dreamed flight in the streets of Paris’ frenchiest musical influences.

After those soft musical pieces, Surfing On A Rocket is refreshingly dynamic, though too exuberant to keep up with the rest of the album. This is also one of the only two track featuring a prominent electric guitar, omnipresent in 10′000 Hz Legend. The voice of Lisa Papineau, mainly heard at the end of the track, is the only guest vocal on this album.

Another Day unveils slowly as the melody takes you over, led by a simple harpsichord-sounding line, reminding hardcore fans of a song Air had composed years ago on a Roland MC-505 Groovebox: Planet Vega. Planet Vega was described by Nicolas Godin as a parody of the music of a French composer (Francis Lai) and the word “parody” could probably also describe Another Day, slowly paced and calm as an obsessive dream sung by the multi-layered voice of JB.

Next comes Alpha Beta Gaga (a private joke referring to JB’s previous job as a maths teacher?). Noisy, it mixes whistles, banjo, strings, mellotron-like choirs and the electronic breakaway of a filtered Korg MS20. Imperially kitsch, this song sounds like the electro-remix of a soundtrack to a sadly imaginary 70’s French movie.

Biological is probably the most intriguing track on the album. Starting as a melancholic lament for some improbable genetically modified monster, it is sharply broken by a kitsch banjo-driven chorus. After a few listenings though, the song becomes simply beautiful, closed by the slow momentum of an electric guitar.

As much as the opening titles of Moon Safari (La Femme d’Argent) and 10′000 Hz Legend (Electronic Performers) clearly announced the sound for the whole album (dreamy chill-out retro-futuristic pop for the former, beautifully dark electro-rock for the latter), I have found that the same thing could be said of the closing tracks for 10′000 Hz Legend (Caramel Prisoner) and Talkie Walkie (Alone In Kyoto), both being tracks that stand out from the rest of their respective albums.

In both cases, they represent the apotheosis of the album textures, while giving the same message of loneliness, of lost beauty, with totally opposite approaches. Caramel Prisoner gave the feeling of a dying electronic ghost watching a noisy city by night, alone in the darkness, whereas Alone In Kyoto tells the story of a young girl, looking for herself in the calm, snow covered wilderness (or, for that matter, in Kyoto).

It is remarkable how both songs end : an electronic sweeping wave in Caramel Prisoner and the pure sound of waves rolling on a beach in Alone In Kyoto. The cold, dark electronic reconstruction against the simple sincerity of unaltered, natural perceptions.

These details alone summarize the diversity and the depth of Air’s latest two albums, or their music in general.

10′000 Hz Legend was an exuberant journey Air undertook to explore their own limits. It was therefore more focused on the lands they crossed, and less personal ; darker, too, and more demanding. They visited many places even themselves must have found exotic, went far away carrying their talent along, but maybe so far that few people could follow.

Talkie Walkie is about showing us the world they know and doing what they like. It sounds a little kitsch, but it is sincere and true, maybe for the first time thanks to the confidence they have acquired. Brighter, more straightforward and minimalistic, it remains deeply inventive and pleasant – like electronic performers doing human music.

Yet another dream soundtrack album you’ll never manage to wear out.

Rating: 7/7