Sunday, October 28, 2012

Album Review: Air – Le Voyage Dans La Lune (2012)

As we edge closer to the end of another calendar year it occurs to me that I haven’t covered or reviewed even a fraction of the new album releases I’ve been listening to over the past ten months. So I thought it timely to start getting a few thoughts up before they lose whatever morsel of relevance they have. I’ll start with Air’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune, a February 2012 release and one I’ve returned to a few times over the course of the year.

Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are well travelled in the art of soundtrack work, so when the press note accompanying the album’s release informed us that Le Voyage Dans La Lune had been inspired by a 1902 silent science fiction flick called A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) it seemed very much in sync with everything else the duo has given us to date. That it received a mixed bag response from critics and the general public alike was also rather in keeping with more recent appraisals of Air’s considerable output.

The strength of Air’s debut album Moon Safari nearly a decade and a half ago now has ensured that the duo’s work is always scrutinised with the highest of expectations in mind. Moon Safari was one of those albums that seemed to be everywhere at the time of its release, its sumptuous warmth was all encompassing to the extent that it challenged the very definition of the genre it was most commonly associated with – chill. It was more summery breeze than sub-Arctic blast. It also arrived at a time when French disco was coming as close to crossing over as it ever would, and the debut, with its club ready grooves, added no little momentum to that scene for a few years around the cusp of the century.   
So pretty much every subsequent release from Dunckel and Godin has been fated to pale in the shadow of Moon Safari. And it’s fair to say the duo’s seventh studio effort was always destined to suffer the same fate, despite the ambitious concept behind it; the idea that a century-old silent sci-fi classic, which previously would surely have only ever had a single piano accompaniment at best, could be revisited and soundtracked by the very best that post-millennium post-windows technology has to offer … well, as an idea it’s nothing if not a little indulgent and grand.

Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t quite match the ambition for around half of the album. When Air is on song, when the duo is firing, it works, and tracks like ‘Seven Stars’, ‘Sonic Armada’, and ‘Cosmic Trip’ would not look out of place sitting alongside the best of the rest in Air’s wider discography. But other tracks feel over-cooked in parts, a little bloated, and well … a bit too proggy for their own good.

Ultimately the best way to assess or enjoy Le Voyage Dans La Lune would be to hear it in its entirety while watching the film. I get that. That is the nature of the beast with this project, and a now common thread in Air’s work. And while that may be possible when the restored and colourised version of the film hits a festival theatre somewhere near you sometime soon, the fact remains that the vast majority of us listening to the music now are unlikely to have that context. Therefore it has to be judged for what it is. Or in the form available, as a digital download in my own case. And on that basis, Le Voyage Dans La Lune is a bumpy ride, the album as a standalone work feels lumpy and inconsistent, a bit pompous and full of itself even, and it won’t go down as one of the duo’s more realised pieces of work.

I guess the most frustrating thing about Air is that, just like the little girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme of yore, when they’re good they’re very very good, and when they’re bad … well, let’s just say there’s a smidgen of horror lurking there somewhere. One of the reasons I did return to this one through the year was because I wanted to like it, I wanted to give it another chance. I loved the stuff I did like, but in the end my finger was never too far from the “next” key on my pod, and it wasn’t an especially enjoyable start-to-finish listen.

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