I’m not a thoroughly educated man. There is some lingering controversy on how exactly I acquired my high school diploma, and I don’t have a fancy college degree like a bachelors in business management or a masters in fruity Parisian synth-pop, but I do know one thing- Air is an old dog that doesn’t give a shit about learning new tricks.
For almost 10 years, one of the worst named bands in the history of music has been a beacon of anachronistic electronica, birthing thousands of fans and hundreds of imitators. Fusing melancholy hooks with a 70’s sense of style, Air’s focus on creating lush instrumentals led to perfectly envisioned soundtrack pieces (The Virgin Suicides/Lost In Translation), and beautiful backdrops for guest vocalists (The song “Playground Love” was in a really cool Levi’s commercial). Many integral elements in modern day pop have been blah blah blah… Ok, so they’ve spent a decade building a fortress out of cred and record sales, but what does that mean for the new album Pocket Symphony?
It’s a pretty simple idea- A band starts out with an ear-catching, original sound. Others pick up on it, the band gets their fans, imitators, and now they have two choices- work really hard on distancing themselves from the clones, or “Stay the course”, if you will, and soon find that they have become a sad, diminutive contributor to the sound they once championed. Which path Air chose becomes apparent within roughly 8 seconds into the new record, the 4th full-length, when an acoustic guitar starts floating over a breezy keyboard and reverb heavy loop. Instruments by the handful are added, textures build and then 50 minutes later I’m googling celebrity nip slips when I notice the music’s stopped. It was comparable to an alcoholic blackout, except when I came to I was in a coffee shop and just super bored. In other words this 12 song mishmash of distracted piano, fake violins, and thrift store beats is a race between catatonic and derivative, but I’m back on “Mandy Moore + Upskirt” before I can figure out who wins.
Maybe I’m not being 100% fair- supposedly various ancient Asian instruments have been added to the mix of this record, and there is a marked attempt to provide more “organic” sounds that they aren’t been known for. But the melodies are so uninspired and the vocals (8 of 12 have singing) so mundane, they come off as Muzak folk songs, just polished enough to listen to while waiting for someone at Verizon to explain your bill. Even Jarvis Cocker’s attempt to channel Nick Cave on “One Hell Of A Party” comes off as antiseptic bubblegum.
And this is what really kills me- Pocket Symphony is possibly the safest record I’ve ever heard. There are Raffi records more fucked up sounding than this. I’m not looking to be tested when listening to an Air record; it’s not like I expected to pop it in and hear the next Mahavishnu Orchestra, but after almost 10 years at least try to goose me a little bit. Show me that you weren’t going through the motions. That you tried to put out interesting art instead of just cashing a paycheck. But there’s nothing on this record that doesn’t scream “You suckers just bought us matching Vespas”. And before you even hear a note, the record cover tells it all- two clear plastic molds of both members, posing in a post-modern living room, there in every way but spirit.