You Make It Easy: Air’s Moon Safari at 25

The French band’s debut album was a perfect fit in the post-modern late 90s

Air “Sexy Boy” ape (Image: Astralwerks)

When SPIN’s Jeff Salamon reviewed Air’s first and most beloved album upon release, he noticed one major absence: irony.

Maybe he was attuned to look for it because the band name emblazoned on the album art came with a parenthetical: Air (French Band), it read, anticipating Wikipedia later and its need to distinguish this tech-friendly new critics’ darling from the ‘70s jazz outfit that made Air Lore. Or maybe it was just the 1990s.

Before the Internet turned the world into a giant meme, all kinds of personas and musical successors were trying on a mix of nostalgia and humor to visible success under the alt-rock umbrella: Reverend Horton Heat’s newly dubbed “psychobilly,” Southern Culture on the Skids’ twangy-surf-hillbilly cartoon shtick, Stereolab’s deep love of analog synths and stark, retro album art and titles that took inspiration from instructional records and all sorts of marginal paraphernalia. Swing bands, third-wave ska, Gregorian chants. And yes, a brief moment for the lounge exotica proferred by winking acts like Combustible Edison and reissues of Juan Garcia Esquivel and Serge Gainsbourg, space-age sex soundtracks and composers of post-modern sleaze. Pulp Fiction even made Neil Diamond (via Urge Overkill) cool.

Air Moon Safari, Astralwerks 1998

But the duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel was something else; only Stereolab of the above-named flashpoints took their own anachronisms so seriously (well, and the Benedictine Monks), and so tunefully. Honest nostalgia was something new (now there’s irony for you) as the ‘90s were waning.

Suave hipster electronica wasn’t the only style regaining points for sincerity at the turn of the millennium, as lovesick emo and pop-punk began to take hold of alternative radio waves and nu-metal’s very white very male rage was looking more earnest on behalf of high school bullies than victims. Even The Strokes’ cheeky, Reed-derived consciousness was part of a heart-on-sleeve nostalgia revival for vintage classic rock, just not Ted Nugent’s or Journey’s kind. Most of the decade was leading up to the ‘80s revival that took over indie rock, R&B and pop in the 2010s. But it took almost all of the 2000s to get there, as Rilo Kiley was castigated for hinting at Gloria Estefan prematurely in 2007. In 1998, Air were almost on an island.

They somehow fit right into the electronica heyday though, with friends like Beck (whose burping “Sexy Boy” remix is a scream and who’d guest on their second album) and peers like Fatboy Slim, who was doing his own thing with retromania combined with breakbeats making actual hits from Big Beat and garage-soul-style samples. Maybe it’s their pithiness; Moon Safari is an extraordinarily tight and focused album for its ridiculous premise, like the I Get Wet of easy listening.

 

VIDEO: Air “Sexy Boy”

Ten dreamy, lushly arranged tunes without any wild key changes or garish tangents, some even as focused as rock ‘n’ roll. My favorite is “Kelly Watch the Stars,” which pounds a smooth three-chord Moog fart into submission with a beat like Van Morrison’s Them. But “Sexy Boy,” “All I Need,” and the great centerpiece “You Make It Easy” all vamp on a good hook and write a whole song around it. Even spacier numbers like the mildly epic “La Femme D’Argent” opener have an R&B-savvy logic to their unfurling chordage, Tropicalia-cum-porno funk in the bass. The synths have some give. Percussion tracks are noticeable.

So when post-disco symphonic strings dive in halfway through “Remember,” they’re paired with marching blurred snares, double-time tambourine, sassy vocoder. Whirring noises and acoustic guitars and such a wide palette that it feels limiting to slot it as electronic. No points for guessing their next one would be a film score, though the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides, either because of their own tunes or their savvy to attach themselves to cool, ended up being a bigger deal than most.

The ‘90s spawned a lot of effortlessly cool idols from Kim Deal to Kim Gordon. Air themselves didn’t turn out to be as iconic or influential a duo as, say, their fellow French band Daft Punk. But Moon Safari still sounds as fresh and timeless in 2023 in its retrofuturistic way that it did 25 years ago, partly because it was as alien to its own era as it is now. It would sound great behind some footage of little green men. Or a Tinder hookup with one.

 

 

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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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