There are a few things I'm impressed with Air for doing: resuscitating crusty, decades-old Moog blorps amidst the frenzy of millennial techno-utopian futurism, turning a new generation on to a certain vintage Gallic notion of jet-set sophistication, and getting indie- and punk-dominated college rock stations to play what essentially amounted to lounge prog. Most of all, there's the way they composed their music as an unapologetically frothy sort of cheese-pop without letting it get dominated by snorting insincerity or self-conscious hokeyness. You could still hear the kitsch, but it wasn't the driving force, and they had a sneaky way of lulling you into forgetting you weren't "supposed" to like this kind of thing. Hell, lots of people actually had sex to Moon Safari, which is about as unironic as you can get. (At least I hope they were being unironic.)
A half-decade of Balearic/glo-fi/'lude-house has since refined that mellow aesthetic to the point where taste-conscious end-runs around potential irony have become increasingly unnecessary. But while that refinement applied readily to the subtle songcraft of Talkie Walkie and Pocket Symphony, both of which provided ample evidence of Air's vintage pop smarts, they've somehow stumbled their way into a pit of lite-FM treacle on their new album. Love 2– as titles go, a bad pun disguised as a sequel nobody needed– is a dopey little slice of not-much that feels like a noodly rendering of yacht-pop weightlessness. Much has been made about Air's new independence in the process of making this album; it's the first one to come out of their new recording studio, Atlas, and the first to be written and recorded without the input of any major outside producers (though they still brought in Moon Safari engineer Stephane "Alf" Briat to tinker behind the boards). Far be it from me to accuse Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin of being a couple empty vessels who need a Nigel Godrich to whip them into shape, but maybe they could've used someone looking over their shoulders to warn them away from indulging in some bad ideas.
Bad ideas like, say, "Tropical Disease". This song is the album's longest, worst, and most emblematic of Love 2's problems, nearly seven minutes of malaise that bookends a preciously chipper, tin whistle-punctuated slab of Playskool krautrock with two movements of plastic surgeon's waiting-office Muzak. It's laughably oily when its Econolodge-noir sax oozes in crotch-first, and even more uncomfortable in its second half when Dunckel's pitched-up voice chirps, "Woman/ Make me feel… warm inside." God, it's awkward. That empty yet still uncomfortable theme of louche, inarticulate romance is all over the record's ill-advised vocal tracks: pining over a walking (albeit softly walking) cliché in "So Light Is Her Footfall"; trying to milk intrigue out of the lifeless phrase, "there is something going on between us," in "You Can Tell It to Everybody"; murmuring about love in "Love" (lyrics: "Love/ Love/ Love/ Love/ Love"). The lyrics read less like the work of someone who didn't grow up speaking English than someone who knows it well and thinks it's kind of a stupid, pointless language. That'd explain the empty, tense-based babble-talk in "Sing Sang Sung", at least.
Maybe they've always been perpetrators of petty crimes against lyrical songwriting and it's only now that their music's been weak enough to avoid hiding it. The exoticism that made their instantly recognizable brand of music compelling– the outmoded technology, the unexpected world-music left turns, the almost detached baroqueness– has been diluted to the point where all their old tricks sound listless. Leadoff track "Do the Joy" is maybe the least-botched attempt at doing something new, though its fuzzed-out slo-motion strut is quickly rendered absurd by a "spooky" B-movie synthesizer melody. Most everything else runs a diverse gamut of uninspiring retreads: uptempo krautpunk that sounds a bit like The Virgin Suicides standout "Dead Bodies" without the intensity ("Be a Bee"), lightheaded, minimalist tweaks of hotel-lounge disco ("Love", which scans like George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby" in a coma), mid-80s David Bowie with gastrointestinal discomfort ("Missing the Light of the Day"), a half-baked instrumental caricature of Blondie-sans-Debby ("Eat My Beat"), and a couple of pretty unconvincing attempts to incorporate Afrobeat ("Night Hunter") and township music ("African Velvet"– I wish I were making up that title).
Thing is, it still sounds entirely like an Air album– just a remarkably bland one. The complementary piano/synth lines that Dunckel and Godin made their stock in trade still dredge up a few legitimately nice melodies, though they typically prove fleeting. And session drummer-turned-auxiliary member Joey Waronker, well, he tries; he's one of the better motorik beat-deployment specialists going, and even he can't jostle much excitement into the proceedings, especially when his job most of the time is to tap out minimalist beats in one of the many tracks that pushes downtempo rhythms into complete stasis. Love 2 exhibits the band's style by just about every familiar metric, except the one that made them fascinating in the first place– that uncanny ability to make schlock sound beautiful. In its place is a strange reversal: beauty rendered schlock, pop melodies and space-age wonder curdled by damaged whimsy.
- Nate Patrin, October 5, 2009
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