There are only two kinds of Air songs: those that you can fuck to, and those that you can’t. Air’s debut, Moon Safari, is nearly as shameless with its winking coyness as it is with its retro synthesizers. Clever, addictive, and incredibly sexy, Safari is unquestionably one of the best pop records of the 1990s. The adventurous follow-up (not counting their soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides), 10,000 Hz Legend, was a train wreck, redeemed by the pretty good Talkie Walkie. That album probably didn’t lead to as many unplanned pregnancies as Moon Safari‘s slithering grooves did, but it was simple and soulful—cocktail party music for anyone who gets nervous listening to Stereolab.
But there’s a reason why Astralwerks dropped Air’s new release a few weeks after Valentine’s Day: Moody and introspective, Pocket Symphony is a nice enough album (the production is as crystalline as ever, the French duo has never channeled Bacharach so successfully, and there aren’t any of the stupid robot voices they used on 10,000 Hz) , but it’s seeming less and less likely that Air will be able to sustain Safari‘s brilliance over an entire LP ever again. What’s good here is very good: instrumental tracks like “Lost Message” and “Night Sight” are hypnotic and beautiful, equal parts LaMonte Young and Depeche Mode. The tune behind the Jarvis Cocker-fronted “One Hell of a Party” isn’t that hot, but Cocker’s world-weary performance is as great as anything on last year’s awesome Jarvis. If Air and Cocker teamed up for a whole record, there might just be a new In The Wee Small Hours.
Air worked with Cocker and The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, who provides vocals for the wistful “Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping,” on last year’s Charlotte Gainsbourg record, so one wonders why Gainsbourg isn’t on board for this project as well. Too bad, because the weakest Air tracks are always the ones they sing themselves: “Napalm Love” is nearly as dumb as its title while “Photograph” revisits some of Moon Safari‘s motifs, adds some spooky echoes and minor chords, and completely demystifies their earlier work. The worst of Pocket Symphony is dull and overly familiar; the best is familiar and gently gorgeous.