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Appreciating Air’s sidestep

14/09/2010
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What Kid A wanted to do but which it left halfway. Whilst Radiohead‘s great plot twist certainly threw a fair few people off their carts and launched the band into unknown waters, it had its feet firmly stuck in the band’s roots as experienced by about half an album’s worth of material that was good but not particularly farfetched from what the band had done before. 10 000 Hz Legend (2001) threw the same curveball to those who fell in love with Moon Safari‘s chilled-out lounge pop and utilised much of the same that Radiohead played with – electronic sounds and desire to break away from anything human, to distance from past successes. But where Kid A was still audibly a Radiohead album, 10 000 hz Legend bears next to nothing in similarity to Moon Safari or anything AIR had done before it.

10 000 hz Legend plays out like it was made by robots who after a cataclysmic humanity-erasing war digged through the ruins left behind, found traces of music and began to imitate the culture mankind left behind. It’s a decidedly alien album but one that uses familiar methods to break into uncanny valley. Its heartfelt love letters are uttered by computer text-to-voice programs. There’s a song about radio music, backed by absolutely gigantic hooks but which sounds manufactured and mechanical in a far more emphasised way than anything in the radio that actually is just another manufactured pop star. It even takes on country music of all things (!) and somehow twists and bends it into something creepily surreal, as if sung by aliens with only a vague idea of what music was all about. The suave French accents are gone, replaced by mechanic distortion and robotic voices. The voice(s) in the opening song states straight to the point that the ones in control are electronic performers. Aside from the suave, melodic “Radian” (which spends its first three minutes buzzing broken in emptiness), musically there’s very little left of the warm, inviting melodies of Moon Safari. It’s all been replaced with stuttering electronics, robotic rhythms and the strange juxtapositions that happen when those collide with gently plucked acoustic guitars and other out-of-place elements.

The juxtaposition of element is why 10 000 hz Legend is also such a great album. It takes things that sound like natural progression for the duo, turns them upside down, inside out and twists them and then presents it like nothing ever happened. It’s a curiously weird album, both almost willingly uninviting and something that sounds natural and familiar. About half the album travels in the realms of utterly bizarre, from the weird chemical drawl of “Sex Born Poison” to “Wonder Milky Bitch”, the most insane country song you’ve likely ever heard. Sometimes the weirdness comes from the unexpected: amidst all the quirky electronic endeavours is something like “The Vagabond”, an organic folk rock singalong where Beck does his best intergalactic hobo impression.

It’s not an album that’s an instant charmer because it makes so little sense in so many ways, and it’s likely it’ll always seem a bit off. Over time though the abnormal begins to sound normal and the album’s individualistic ways begin to sound perfectly sensible. That sense of things being a bit wonky just beyond your gaze remains but the songs start speaking on their own qualities rather than simply having a big red “this is a bit unexpected” stamp on their faces. Underneath it all there is a whole bunch of fairly excellent songs here: perhaps it’s just my wonked-up head but many of the songs here are far more memorable than a lot of the duo’s more openly inviting, melodic pieces. These days I’ve begun to find it somewhat more exciting than Moon Safari even – 10 000 hz Legend is one of those albums that you seem to find new things from with each listen. And to its credit, it hosts “Electronic Performers” which is probably Air’s finest work when it comes to the sheer power of atmosphere; particularly the way the main motif re-introduces itself is one of the reasons why it’s one of my favourite album openers.

It’s become Air’s most troublesome weak point that they’re a very safe artist, someone with such a clear sound that you can easily know what to expect whenever there’s a new release. Lately it’s got to the point that it’s began to downright hamper them and force them into a rut; too reliant on their trademark sound to the point that they’ve started to run out of ideas. 10 000 Hz Legend is a massive difference compared to anything else they’ve ever done and whilst it’s understandable that it’s not to everyone’s liking, it’s a sign that Air can actually do something else than pretty, melodic floatypieces. Perhaps the oversaturation of the latter from the very same group has made me appreciate Legend more and more as time goes by. It’s very un-Airy and I do love the typical sounding Air, but because Legend is such a massive difference it’s also their most memorable and has a longevity in their work only matched by the now-legendary Moon Safari. And like Safari, it’s one of the reasons why Air can be a rather brilliant act.


Electronic Performers

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