To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Air’s seminal debut album we look back to the late ‘90s when French House music, or ‘French Touch’ as it was often known, was asserting its dominance on dance floors across the world. How a duo from Versaille with a penchant for Ambient and Classical music came to be the next big thing is worth digging into, thus we present our classic album review of ‘Moon Safari’.
Nicolas Godin, Jean-Benoît Dunckel, formerly students of architecture and mathematics respectively, founded Air off the back of a short lived band called Orange and Godin’s own solo compositions. After releasing a string of singles, collected together on 1997’s ‘Premiers Symptômes’ EP, the pair gathered together to write what would become ‘Moon Safari’.
This work came at a time when French music was in ascendance. While St Germain were crafting the building blocks of their internationally acclaimed Acid Jazz, the sound of Daft Punk and Cassius had left the Paris club scene and started to take over the world. In particular the success of Daft Punk’s ‘Homework’, released in 1997, would whet international appetites for more French hits. However, unlike their dance floor focused brethren, Air would not craft their sound from stylishly curated samples pulled from dusty crates. Instead their attention was more conventionally band-oriented, intent on plying their trade with the help of a Fender Rhodes, a MiniMoog, a Vocoder and an electric bass.
Opening with the sound of bongos and running water, the instrumental ‘La femme d’argent’ quickly shuffles into a languid, grooving bass riff and jazzy keys before electronic textures join the fray. Just beyond the midpoint things drop back to a looping piano and that crisp bass groove, slow and steady. While there are many moving parts and the track is richly dynamic, it’s a slow burn that demands a slow head nod rather than a shaking of the hips or a raising of hands in the air. As an introduction to the Air sound it is near perfect; stylish and relaxed but with a slightly off-kilter, spacey vibe.
Of course, nothing lasts long on an epic journey like a safari and so when the fuzzy, now unmistakable, bass riff of ‘Sexy Boy’ enters, a new realm is entered. Featuring sultry vocals that came from warping the singing of both Dunckel and Godin, it is one of the few tracks here sung in French rather than English. There is an oft recounted quote from Godin noting astutely that if they’d sung “sexy girl” the track would have been “a disaster”. Instead they opted for a track that captured who they wanted to be and the now familiar, and for a time ubiquitous, ‘Sexy Boy’ was born. To the uninitiated this spacey, sultry French cool was immediately popular, showing that its early placement on the album and release as the lead single were wise choices.
From there we enter into the first of two tracks with Beth Hirsch, an English singer who Godin met through mutual friends in Paris. ‘All I Need’ started life as the guitar part outro and bass lifted from early single ‘Les professionnels’ before the vocals of Beth Hirsch were added. Godin described their sound as like a “space-age Carpenters” and that’s as fair an assessment as they come as the soft guitar and floating vocals waft alongside atmospheric electronics. From there both the duo and their label encouraged Hirsch to join them for a second number resulting in ‘You Make It Easy’ with lyrics from Hirsch recounting a summer romance she had in Paris. Both tracks nail the warmer downtempo sound Air crafted on ‘Moon Safari’, helping to drive the “loungecore” side of the chillout genre that was more song focused than ambient.
On the other side of the chillout divide is the less loungey, more intricate instrumental sounds aimed more at heads than heart which were catered to through tracks like ‘Talisman’, filled with strings and swift marching snares. Elsewhere, the glassy intro to ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ turns into a squelchy, bordering on funky, bass line that soon finds multiple synth parts overlapping to create a serene spacescape with just a hint of kitsch. It’s on tracks like these that subtle hints at the bands interest in Cluster and Brian Eno become more apparent.
Taken together as a whole, ‘Moon Safari’ is a true journey of discovery that in some ways mirrors the album’s back cover; a VW camper turned space rocket, taking the retro and reaching for the stars. Released just prior to Groove Armada’s debut ‘Northern Star’, ‘Moon Safari’ helped ignite huge interest in chillout music while doing something many of their peers weren’t yet ready to do; stepping away from the Hip Hop and breaks based Trip Hop and Electronica that had been dominating for the previous ten years. While many of the tracks from ‘Moon Safari’ would become all too familiar as they were picked up by TV soundtracks and advertising, the album still resonates many years later. While the big hits with the catchy vocals have stood the test of time, the Hirsch voiced tracks continue to be underappreciated gems while instrumental tracks like ‘Talisman’ and ‘La femme d’argent’ stand out further as highlights of an album worth indulging in from start to finish. While Air would move on to more Pop focused tracks alongside more stripped back soundtrack work, their finest tracks continued to follow the ‘Moon Safari’ recipe where carefully developing instrumental soundscapes would sound perfectly contemporary, futuristic and timeless all at once.