AIR: MOON SAFARI (1998)
1) La Femme D'Argent; 2) Sexy Boy; 3) All I Need; 4) Kelly Watch The Stars; 5) Talisman; 6) Remember; 7) You Make It Easy; 8) Ce Matin-La; 9) New Star In The Sky; 10) Le Voyage De Penelope.
In 2008, Moon Safari was given the royal treatment of coming out as a 3-CD 10th anniversary edition. This should be interpreted as a fact that today, it is tacitly acknowledged as a history-confirmed classic of its genre, whatever its genre may be. But there is something uncomfortable about this — namely, the alarming speed with which the record becomes likable, and the nagging suspicion that, perhaps, this is a bit too fluffy to have gained "classic" status so quickly? Aren't you supposed to "get into" the classics?
Usually, Moon Safari gets pinned under either the broad category of "Electronica" or, somewhat narrower but no less vague, under the "Chillout" moniker. The latter definition, I like; Moon Safari is indeed a great album to "chill out" to, regardless of whether you're doing it properly, after a laborious dance floor workout, or simply after a hard day's work. But stocking it in the "Electronica" department wouldn't do it proper justice, because both before and after its release, the typical associations to go along with the word are quite far removed from what you're going to hear on this particular record.
It is, of course, dominated by electronic gadgets, although regular guitars, pianos, strings and even brass instruments regularly complement the picture. But it's wildly retro in its use of said gadgets; totally "anti-Kraftwerk", in the sense that we're going back from the image of Electronica as this totally different, futuristic, technophilic, sci-fi oriented wave, to the earlier role of synthesizers as assistants in capturing various special shades of classic harmony — the way they were treated by early art-rockers, from Pete Townshend to Mike Oldfield. Yet at the same time it's different, because it makes use of all the experience in between. The early art-rockers were spacemen-to-be, testing their vehicles on Earth; AIR are spacemen-that-were, still singing their song on the same planet, but only after they'd gone and come back.
So, Moon Safari is really an "art-pop" album in the Oldfield tradition, but burdened with some of the newer electronic conventions (such as sampling). As such, it brings nothing new to the table except for a set of nice melodies, ranging from "simply cool" to "far out", especially if you're into mushrooms on the side. Two of the songs, featuring guest vocals from singer-songwriter Beth Hirsch, are straightforward sentimental ballads, one of which ('All I Need') they even managed to turn into a hit. The rest are cute, inoffensive, moderately complex and almost always emotionally charged sonic panoramas, each of which would make for an unforgettable accompaniment to some pretentious modern art exhibition (threatening to divert all attention to the music).
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about these gradually unfurling paysages is how technically immaculate all of them sound. There isn't a tremendous amount of detail, but what there is is glossed to perfection. Obviously, it is hard to expect instrumental virtuosity from a French electronic duo, but even if the bass line on 'La Femme D'Argent' isn't the most complex and fluid bass line on Earth, it gives as much beauty, power, and funky coolness to the track as its more prominently melodic keyboard overdubs. And even if the main theme on 'Ce Matin-La' is literally heralded by a soft, friendly trumpet tone, its acoustic guitars, quietly ringing in the background, are strummed with precise attention to each note. This resplending gloss — stunning, but never annoying — almost made me think that this, perhaps, is what Steely Dan could have produced were they to ever venture out into the fields of "chillout" (well, come to think of it, late period Steely Dan are the perfect "chillout" outfit).
On the other hand, gloss is nothing when it gets you nowhere, and these guys certainly have a vision that can get you somewhere, if not anywhere. Apart from the obvious album title itself, only the last track has a "travel" tag ('Le Voyage De Penelope', having nothing to do with Ulysses' wife but rather with some obscure French TV show of the same name), but, really, most of the record has a "travel" mood to it, taking you from the astral plane ('Kelly Watch The Stars') to romantic rooftops ('Remember', intelligently driving along to the sampled rhythm from the Beach Boys' 'Do It Again') to sunrise-lit prairies ('Ce Matin-La') to creepy nighttime forests ('Talisman') to unexplored sea depths ('Penelope'); and the most fun thing of all is that you don't need to take my word for it, but are welcome to construct a little fantasy galaxy of your own. I didn't even mention the big hit that made the boys into superstars ('Sexy Boy'), but, truth is, I find it just one ordinary part of the album's overall charm, and maybe not even one of the best ones.
So, to return to my original question — no, I don't think the lush 3-CD edition was completely undeserved (although I have no idea whether the additional material is worth looking for). Moon Safari is not a trashy Katy Perry-class attention grabber; it is a piece of light, but serious, art with a lot of soul and an even bigger lot of work invested into it, and, despite having been produced at the height of the post-modern era, it hearkens back to idealistic values of yore, and being so cleverly placed at the intersection of the two, it's got that special something which I, for instance, have never managed to find in any Autechre album. It is impossible to deny, however, that, compared to Autechre and the like, Moon Safari is definitely "easy listening", and that it is unlikely to expect the elitist parts of the audience to worship at its altar.