Moogs on the Moon:
Air’s debut 20 years on

Now considered a landmark in downtempo electronic music, Air’s 1998 release, Moon Safari, is by all accounts an exceptionally unusual record.

Part Muzak, part rave, with moments both calm and chaotic, it’s a record that melds New Wave and lo-fi without missing a beat. Scattered throughout are Beth Hirsch’s vocals, sounding ethereal and spacey, all backed by pitch-rolled bass and keyboards reminiscent of The Door’s Ray Manzarek. As its title suggests, Moon Safari is an exercise in musical exhibitionism and it is this very daring that has cemented its place in the electronic canon.

 

Beginning with one of Air’s most iconic instrumentals, ‘La Femme d’argent’, sounding like the campy soundtrack to a Le Carré and Pink Panther crossover, sets the album’s tone of downtempo energy, ambient soundscapes, and foot-tapping self-assurance. This is followed by the equally famous ‘Sexy Boy’, a club-ready track of distorted bass and catchy hooks that have become the poster-track of Air’s career. Establishing the album’s armchair-cosmic aesthetic, one that seemingly needs lava lamps and other 90s neon ephemera accompanying it, Moon Safari’s opening gambit is that by 1998 people were ready to give their ears a rest from noisy lead guitars and grungy vocals. Instead, Air ooffersup music that wouldn’t sound out of place on an elevator to the moon itself.

John Mulvey of NME rightfully noted the comparisons to Electric Light Orchestra back in 1998, and the similarities abound with repeat listening. The maximalist aesthetic of Jeff Lynn’s space-brass brigade is readily apparent, but so too are the quieter moments of ambience that bookend ELO’s stadium-rocking choruses. ‘Talisman’ and ‘Remember’ on Moon Safari, with their soaring strings and vocal manipulation, as well as the percussion track eerily reminiscent of ELO’s ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, act as the digital response to the questions raised by the 70s space-rock outfit two decades prior. ELO may have offered a ‘Ticket to the Moon’, but what good is that if there’s nothing to do once you get there? Enter Moon Safari.

Air’s debut is an impossibly nostalgic and sentimental, perhaps even romantic, release that wears its heart firmly on its (album) sleeve. The vocal tracks recall chamber pop and warmed-over ballads, but there is a childlike innocence to the whole album that gels such ideas together. Beth Hirsch sings ‘you make it easy’ on the track of the same name, whilst discordant digital effects rise and fall about her as metronomic clicks keep time with the cosmos. Immediately following this is the warping introduction of ‘Ce matin-lá’, a curious mix of sitar, brass, and electric guitars. It’s warm, lush, and enveloping, a track that sounds half like the title score for a Golden-era Hollywood flick, and half like music that would play in the atrium of the first off-world shopping mall.

The menagerie of Moogs, Wurlitzers, and the other assorted toys of the patented Brian Eno sandbox, do nothing to hide Air’s obvious aural muses. But below the surface level of ambient electronica, there are traces of Lou Reed, Bowie, and even post-punk. The album’s diaphanous veil of electronic warmth is occasionally pocked with darker, brooding moments of uncertainty, even melancholy, and it is such moments that keep repeat listening so exciting.

Now an established duo with a catalogue of celebrated releases, Air’s debut stands as one of the more remarkable debuts in 90s music, if only because of how deliberately it stayed the path of warm, fuzzy electronica. Since its release, Air have collaborated with director Sofia Coppola, contributing to the iconic soundtrack of Lost in Translation, and have worked with French actor and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. They have become indelible icons of the downtempo movement, which is enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to YouTube algorithms and so-called ‘study’ streams. Above all else, they mark perhaps the end of 90s paranoia and anti-establishmentism, replacing it with an explosion of electro-funk courtesy of Daft Punk et al. Moon Safari is as easy-listening as electronic music gets without becoming background noise or, as Brian Eno affectionately called it, ‘wallpaper music.’ We’re not sure when, if ever, we’ll find ourselves planet-hopping our way through a Sunday afternoon shopping spree, but you can bet than Air’s 1998 debut will be the perfect soundtrack when we do.

Words by Will Carroll

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