10,000 Hz Legend (Astralwerks)
The French techno-pop duo Air struck a chord with their early singles and their masterful 1997 debut album Moon Safari, mainly because their music was so much prettier and warmer than the average Eurodance electrician’s. They used acoustic guitars and piano, and created an environment that was like a spaceman’s interpretation of the music enjoyed by the late ’60s jet set after a day of glamour photography. Shortly after charming audiences with their evocation of fragile beauty, Air accepted the assignment to score Sofia Coppola’s superb ’70s-suburban-rot movie The Virgin Suicides, in which they used the same instrumentation to induce a feeling of worldly dread. Converting the lovely into the spooky, Air showed how quickly a breathtaking bloom can wither and decay.
Air’s second “proper” album is 10,000 Hz Legend, which comes packaged with a cover painting that shows the duo standing in a wired-up concrete-and-glass “home of the future,” balanced precariously on a butte in a southwestern American desert. The music inside strikes a similarly precarious balance, between the delicate analog pleasures of Moon Safari and the brittle synth-spiked angst of The Virgin Suicides. Almost every song on 10,000 Hz Legend has English-language lyrics, which amount to a haiku-like string of boasts, buzzwords, slogans, and emotional confrontations. Despite moments like the achingly gorgeous flute duet in the mellow instrumental “Radian,” those hoping for a complete return to the reassuring grooves of Air’s early work are bound to be disappointed.
But those who find Air’s inventive collision of musical approaches to be invigorating and artful should enjoy what amounts to an hour of sometimes creepy, sometimes calming meditations on the new hybrids of man and machine that await us in the near future, and the potential of music to keep us in touch with our humanity. The Beck-sung track “The Vagabond,” for example, offers harmonica, gentle acoustic guitar, and eerie synthesized handclaps under unsettling electronic textures and lyrics like “I’m running after time / And I miss the sunshine”indicating a life of rootlessness and loneliness. But the ultimate message of the song is that the protagonist won’t rest until he finds “something true / something lovely.” The musical accompaniment may indicate that he’ll never get what he wants, but the sentiment is there, and given that the next track is the very true and very lovely “Radian,” it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Air are more hopeful than bleak.
Other standouts on 10,000 Hz Legend include the opener, a spaced-out Kraftwerk homage called “Electronic Performers”; the witty and disturbing vocoder-aided “How Does It Make You Feel?”; the bubbling, relentless “People in the City” (with the Byrne-ian chorus “moving watching working sleeping driving”); and the abstract, melody-free closer “Caramel Prisoner,” which consists mainly of random blips and beeps and “oohs,” until a rhythmically strummed guitar restores order to the chaosjust as Air do with this endlessly fascinating, thoroughly visionary record.
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