When it comes to evocative band names, Air might be one of the greatest of all time. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel have spent several decades making music that you don’t so much listen to as you aspirate — gorgeous, wispy drifts of oxygenated orchestral rushes dotted with the faint pulse of keys and synths, lungs providing life to the beating heart of it all. Air’s music is as intangible as it is easily describable, not unlike trying to explain the shape of clouds. It’s dreamy, atmospheric, explicitly sensual, laid-back, intensely detailed, deceptively simple. They have no discernible influence on the current musical landscape beyond the increasing societal demand for “background music” in recent years. Long before we had lo-fi hip-hop beats to study to, Air were there.
Such an artistic mindset suggests that any level of controversy would elude artists like Godin and Dunckel, whose discography largely represents the sonic equivalent of round edges and cushioned surfaces. And yet, one sharp right angle juts out in their catalog: 10 000 Hz Legend, the pair’s spacey second proper album, which turns 20 years old today. (If you’re a fan, you already know that the very site you’re reading this essay on took its name from a lyric in “Radio Number 1.”)
You don’t hear the phrase “sophomore slump” that often anymore, but you could certainly apply it to critical reception that Air’s proper follow-up to 1998’s landmark Moon Safari received. The album’s relatively modest eclecticism triggered a reaction akin to Dylan going electric. “There’s a thin line between ambient and aimless,” David Browne groused in Entertainment Weekly, while The Guardian bemoaned the album’s supposed proggy detours while citing an excess of “fame-fuelled indulgence and Rick Wakeman.”
Rolling Stone‘s Pat Blashill dropped two-and-a-half stars on the effort, surmising that 10 000 Hz Legend “sounds like Air trying very hard not to be Air.” As it turns out, they were at least half-right. “We’d already changed our style two or three times already,” Godin told me about the time around 10 000 Hz Legend when I spoke with him and Dunckel for Pitchfork back in 2012. “I wasn’t worried about being part of an old scene, because I knew we were outsiders from that scene already.”
Indeed, the gentle melodic splashes and cosmic reveries of 10 000 Hz Legend — itself a sonic midpoint between the shag-carpet immersions of Air’s soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s tragic and aesthetically distant The Virgin Suicides and the bon vivant Bowie-isms of 2004’s classic Talkie Walkie — wasn’t quite like anything their supposed French contemporaries were up to. Daft Punk had just dropped the monumental Discovery a few months prior, which took the rude house motifs of the robots’ legendary debut Homework and added a futuristic sheen along with global pop ambitions.
As a whole, the French Touch movement led by artists like DP, Etienne de Crecy, and Cassius had yet to morph into the all-out hedonistic bloghouse style that Ed Banger would define later in the 2000s. The year before, another group of impossibly coiffed gentlemen, Phoenix, had just dropped their instant-classic debut United — a record that combined French Touch’s body-moving spirit with pop-rock motifs that anticipated the louche (and, despite its origins, utterly French-sounding) garage rock of the Strokes’ Is This It. Even as Air’s music sounded exquisitely European, amidst these artists (many of which Godin and Dunckel were, at the very least, casual friends with) their music sounded particularly stateless from the very beginning.
Still, it’s understandable to a point that the endearing, often low-stakes doodles that make up 10 000 Hz Legend were received with befuddlement upon release. Moon Safari was one of the most fully-realized debuts to come out of the “electronica” fixation that marred the late 1990s, flipping the oily reputation of lounge music on its head and embracing the notion of sonic blissfulness in search of a punishingly beautiful zenith. Set to Coppola’s evocative filmmaking eye, their music for The Virgin Suicides only furthered Air’s vibe-setting reputation for making sure every note was in its right place.
There’s no “Sexy Boy” or “Kelly Watch The Stars” on 10 000 Hz Legend. The closest the album comes to a “big pop single” is the Virgin Suicides-recalling “How Does It Make You Feel?” — which wraps its Beatles-esque chorus in miles of wordless choral wisps as a sparse backbeat keeps time. Beck shows up for “The Vagabond,” a lightly funky shuffler that could’ve fit decently on his own Mutations, while the aforementioned “Radio Number 1” has a slow space-rock build resembling “Kelly Watch The Stars” as a T-shirt turned inside-out — an explosion that never quite explodes, as the song shifts into an easy glam-rock chorus before dissolving into washes of cymbal hits.
Perhaps the greatest mark against 10 000 Hz Legend — a fine album trapped in between two classics (three if you count the Virgin Suicides score as an artistic statement, which it basically is) — is its front-loaded nature. All those aforementioned pop-leaning songs are crammed into the first quarter, as the rest of the album sprawls into stranger territory. The skipping synth beat and ominous minor-key motifs of “Lucky And Unhappy” were the most unstable and sparse that Air sounded at that point, territory that they wouldn’t revisit until 2007’s underappreciated Pocket Symphony. “Don’t Be Light” is a multi-suite journey encompassing spoken-word and gentle Teutonic motorik, while “People In The City” is essentially Air’s “Harder Faster Better Stronger,” as drifting electric guitars and sirens give way to looped lyrical monotony emphasizing the drollness of urban life.
So 10 000 Hz Legend is a weird album in a few respects, and if we were speaking about its legacy, say, circa Pocket Symphony, I’d probably tell the theoretical “you” that it was a transitional release — essentially Godin and Dunckel working through a few different subgenres of electronic and pop music to arrive at the stately, composed loveliness that the following two albums embraced. But the truth is that Air have since more than earned a reputation for embracing exploration over cohesiveness, from the shaggy vibrance of 2009’s Love 2 to the foggy, filmic Le voyage dans la lune from 2012. (The duo have largely been silent since, engaging in solo releases and one-off projects including Godin’s perfectly fine solo LP Concrete And Glass from last year.)
Rather than thinking of 10 000 Hz Legend as weirder than most Air albums, perhaps we should be considering the possibility that Air just flat-out make weird albums that often resemble something like 10 000 Hz Legend. It’s who they are, as much as it’s possible to define who Air actually “are,” and if that seems confusing, well: This music was never meant to be chewed over as much as it’s meant to be simply experienced.