How You Say Le Rock 'n' Roll?

The crystalline beauty of Air's 'Talkie Walkie' doesn't get lost in translation

Mocking the French used to be more fun. Melodramatic flights of accordion, government agencies designed to curb encroaching neologisms comme "le coca-cola" and "le rock 'n' roll," and oh, those accents--such is the stuff of which satire is woven. Then our undead prez set about making the world safe for Armageddon, and Old Europe didn't want to play army men with us anymore. Soon, all across the New World, patriots started freedom-kissing and holding rallies to smash Daft Punk records. Mocking the French is now kinda creepy. As we count down to the End Times, who wouldn't prefer snooty Euro resignation to manifest Yank smugitude?

That's not quite why I no longer distrust Air, but the fact that I've warmed up to the French duo is something other than a coincidence. Almost a decade ago, with "alternative" becoming a commercial institution for clever malcontents to dodge at all costs, guitars were pawned for flutes and martini shakers in artsy ghettos nationwide. In 1998, Air's Moon Safari was the final element in the gentrification of bohemia--the Urban Outfitters opening catty-corner from Starbucks to seal the deal--and the ascendance of Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin not only marked rock, but dance music, as déclassé. Beats, they were not for the dancing, but for the sitting around.

Is that a walkie talkie in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? Air
Claude Gassian
Is that a walkie talkie in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? Air

Europeans are laden with so much history that the eternal present-ness of fluff-pop is an almost necessary relief. But any music that distills the essence of Bacharach--with all trace elements of Dionne Warwick removed, without even the droney parts Stereolab added to reassure us the band has heard a Velvet Underground record--should be suspect. Certain sorts of irony are just inverted Puritanism--desperate frolics amidst the guilty-pleasure foolishness savored by those who think straight fun is somehow unworthy of their art. Moon Safari was better than that, though many of its supporters surely weren't, and even if Air's follow-up hadn't been the lousy 10,000 Hz Legend, there would have been an embarrassed backlash.

If you'd asked me, I'd have said Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks) is not a name an album should be given, and that master cocoon spinner Nigel Godrich is not a producer the Airies should be teamed with--the match is too dangerously perfect. Godrich helped Radiohead encase itself in the crystalline circuitry of OK Computer and swathed Beck in the intricate schmaltz of Sea Change. That's a résumé most would respect, one that I would suggest qualifies him as a trompe l'oreille specialist whose detailed doodles can disguise the most vacuous soundscapes as art. Yet his full-bodied formalism cures Air's case of the cutes. He installs the interstellar equivalent of shag carpeting here, wraps the songs in a space-age fabric that's cozy yet pliable, durable yet lightweight. The two massive piano chords that rumble through "Venus" alone are reverbed so intensely they seem to contain whole universes.

And that's hardly the last time pianos act as forces of gravity on Talkie Walkie. On the instrumental "Alone in Kyoto" a few judiciously thumped keys anchor the guitar plucking and electronic tinkling. Composed for the film Lost in Translation, the song (and the album as a whole) points out certain affinities Air have with director Sofia Coppola. Some are ideological: a subtlety verging on dilettantism, rooted in an underlying genteel distrust of directness, which is in turn rooted in a faith that the path of urbane irony leads to a palace of genuine feeling. But a more striking similarity is that of method. Both Air and Coppola create a disembodied sense of relaxation through sensory overstimulation--the hypnotic repetition of Air's arpeggios (derived not just from minimalism but, as a banjo occasionally implies, maybe from bluegrass, too) are used to the same effect as the neon density of Tokyo in Lost in Translation.

Wisely, Air are a little more distrustful of their aesthetic: The lithe, blithe "Surfing on a Rocket" is an oddly soothing survey of how TV coverage of war makes the technological display oddly soothing. And if tune is the musical analog to plot, Air are certainly less roundabout: They can't bank on Scarlett Johansson's ass or the lidicurous way the Japanese talk to keep your attention. But they're also not about to muddy up their landscape with too much subtext, and good for them. Better an aesthete than an ironist, after all, and if beauty is meaning enough for you, then "Cherry Blossom Girl" will answer a good three-quarters of life's great riddles. The effect is sorta like when Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys initially copped to earnestness in the early '90s. It's way more slight, of course, because Air's commitment to irony was never very deep, and so their conversion is likely just as fickle. But for the time being, it's hard to believe they didn't ever mean it. They weren't winking, they just had something in their eye.

 
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