Marking a return to earth from their 1998 Moon Safari, the latest album by the French pop duo Air, 10,000 Hz. Legend, is short on the sweetness and light that defined their debut.
For Air's Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, the new album, due May 29 on Astralwerks, was first and foremost an opportunity to produce a swath of new moody but melodically gorgeous tunes. But, they explained, it was also a conscious effort to shed their reputation as musical softies.
"We wanted to have something simple, sober and very well-built, but at the same time to increase the originality," Dunckel, 31, said in a high-pitched thick French accent. "We wanted to f--- it up by adding some dirty electronic sounds and very weird things to make it nasty and special. Because, you know, sometimes we said a little bit too much nice ... sometimes the beauty has to be f---ed up to increase its power."
The warm analog coziness of Moon Safari is still in effect on 10,000 Hz., only now it's haunted by a specter of dark emotion and irony, continuing down the spooky path begun by Air's score to last year's film "The Virgin Suicides." The juxtaposition of electronic and organic instruments, especially guitar, and vocals is particularly effective.
"For this album, we had some main ideas," Dunckel said. "We wanted to make a modern LP, and we wanted to mix computer and strange digital effects with the pure sound of an acoustic guitar. That's it."
The eccentrically majestic pop tune "Radio #1" is as good a reference point as any for the album structure-wise, blending electronic gear, like drum machines and synthesizers, with acoustic guitar and backing vocals from past Air collaborator Jason Falkner (a former guitarist for Jellyfish). Likely to be the first radio single, it's the record's "Kelly Watch the Stars," if it can be said to have one.
"If we could imagine our own radio, we would play that kind of song," said Godin, who is also 31.
The song's video will be directed by the French team Alex & Martin, who designed the innovative punch-out cover of Air's Premiers Symptomes singles compilation, which was reissued last year, and who also created the robot costumes for fellow Parisians Daft Punk's recent press campaign.
Beck makes two appearances on 10,000 Hz. Legend, one of which is far more recognizable than the other. He recites an abstract poem amongst a swirl of brooding textures on "Don't Be Light," but he's at the forefront of "The Vagabond," a song about searching that features harmonica and a hand-clap chorus a move that could be viewed as predictable.
Godin said the duo couldn't resist. "When we hear Beck's voice we hear hand claps. It's a Pavlovian reflex."
In addition to the second release on their Record Makers label (the "Virgin Suicides" score was the first), a solo album by French singer/songwriter Sebastian Tellier, the duo will launch a world tour in June, beginning with a month of dates in the United States and Canada.
"We really want to have a huge volume, with a precise mix, in the darkness and mysterious," Dunckel said of their plans for the tour. "It will be for people who like to smoke some spliffs."