Happy 20th Anniversary to Air’s debut album Moon Safari, originally released January 16, 1998.
In 1998, when Air’s debut album Moon Safari was released, my music tastes hadn’t evolved much past Top 40. But when I saw 10 Things I Hate About You, the fuzzed-out bassline and loose drumming of “Sexy Boy” hooked this budding Francophile. In the scene where the school is ticker-taped in flyers for Bogie Lowenstein’s house party, Air’s soon-to-be-huge single provides background music for the wry teen comedy. The first and biggest hit for the French duo, “Sexy Boy” paves the way for their relationship with film (cemented by their follow up album, the soundtrack to 2000’s The Virgin Suicides) and American listeners new to “electronica.”
In the 20 years since Moon Safari surfaced, Air has been a powerful force in French pop. Along with Daft Punk and Phoenix, they redefined the identity of the French music scene to the outside world. In contrast with the austere German techno popular at the time, Moon Safari popularized a down-tempo style (which the music industry scrambled to define as “electronica”).
Prior to Moon Safari, Air had released a few singles (assembled on the groovy little 1997 EP Premiers Symptômes). Veterans of the Parisian music scene, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel felt dependent on the success of the record, viewing it as a bit of a last ditch effort before adulthood overwhelmed creative impulses. In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, Dunckel said, “We were poor. I knew our livelihood depended on Air being successful.” Despite the high stakes, the duo did not play it safe. The album is infused with disparate interests, from astrophysics to Charlie’s Angels (“Kelly Watch The Stars” referring to Kelly of the 70’s TV show). From the opening track, “La femme d’argent,” Moon Safari is foreign enough to be enigmatic, but accessible enough to be a go-to. The album is a work of luscious Impressionism—orchestral, organic sounds over a drum machine, accompanied by dreamy lyrics.
Moon Safari was released at a time when Britpop was dominating the music charts and boy bands were starting to gain steam. Radiohead had released OK Computer the previous year, setting the stage for unconventional pop sounds. Moon Safari was critically well-received, with most reviews applauding it as an imaginative homage to French sound, updated for the new generation. “Sexy Boy,” released as a single, made it to #22 on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Singles chart, while it peaked at #13 in the UK. By the end of the year, Moon Safari was found on most Album of the Year lists. Moreover, it started the wave of “lounge” style music, like Zero 7 and Lemon Jelly, and inspired imitations all over the world.
The album opens with “La Femme d’argent,” a strong introduction to the sexy, louche disco of the following 43 minutes. Godin’s plucky bass, an instrument that becomes remarkably versatile in his hands, grooves along to spacey synths. That same bass, this time plugged into an electric guitar amp, is transformed into something much grungier on “Sexy Boy.” Godin and Dunckel perform the vocals on a few occasions throughout Moon Safari. On “Sexy Boy,” “Kelly Watch the Stars” and “New Star in the Sky (Chanson pour Solal),” they sing through a Vocoder, giving the vocals a futuristic sound.
When a little more romance is needed, the duo called in Beth Hirsch, an American vocalist living in Paris at the time and a neighbor of Dunckel. Her breathy restraint pairs gorgeously with more skeletal arrangements on “All I Need” and “You Make It Easy.” Tender lyrics are sung without irony, a strong pathos throughout. “New Star in the Sky” is a cool breeze of a lullaby, written for Dunckel’s newborn child. Rarely does electronic music possess a heart this big, one of the several justifications of the timelessness of Moon Safari.
Despite the aforementioned loveliness, Air can still start a party. “Kelly Watch the Stars,” “Talisman” and “Remember” all resemble the bigger disco and house tracks coming from fellow Parisians, Daft Punk. There are synthesizers and sweeping strings that transport the listener to a starry pop universe in the Moog galaxy. And while Air is still best known for their slow, sexy songs, they have so much fun with the more upbeat tracks, they’ll always hold a special place in my heart.
Since Moon Safari, I often find myself seduced by the innate “coolness” that can be found in most things French. But that imaginary bar for “cool” has been set by Air. Dunckel and Godin wrote earnest lyrics and created a high-concept, theatrical album about outer space. But the conviction and authenticity of their delivery grounds the music beautifully. Their creativity is the hook, but their reverence of a wide array of genres and generations sets them apart. And while the idea of French “cool” can feel inaccessible and occasionally even mean, that is not the spirit of the album. Moon Safari is the product of two deeply passionate young musicians giving all they have to one special project. And isn’t caring about something really the coolest thing to do?