Air ‘10,000 Hz Legend’: The Gallic Duo’s Best Album
I’m going to go ahead and say it right now: 10,000 Hz Legend is the best Air album. Perhaps more important than that, it is simultaneously the best and worst thing that happened to Air’s career. Now that I’ve knocked the wind out of you, I’m going to kick you in the balls and tell you—as I grin over your fallen body—that Moon Safari is no challenge to like. It’s an easy record. Put those grooves on for your grandmother, and she will pick up her knitting kit, hum along and make you a nice pair of socks. Now, if you let 10,000 Hz Legend rip on her old gramophone, your grandmother will knit herself a self-contained, air-recycling, zero-gravity space suit, step inside it, disappear in a beam of light and land several star systems away but be back home in time to bake you a fuckin’ cake before midnight. I’ve seen it happen.
Not content with proclaiming it Air’s best album, I’m going to go a step further and say it’s on the short list for best of the last decade. 10,000 Hz Legend easily bests the overrated and not-as-cutting-edge-as-everyone-thinks-it-was Kid A. Both albums were released in the same year, but Radiohead received a surplus of masturbatory accolades from critics who somehow forgot that synthesizers were in use before 2001, and that Thom Yorke and Co. basically lifted their entire sound from Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m not out to call into question the supreme artistry of the Yorkshire Puppy. Smile Thom, the world is a lovely place.
It’s alleged, by lazy critics, that 10,000 Hz Legend suffers from lack of focus, over-reach and too much experimentation. I say bullshit with cherries on top. This is the album that kids will be referencing and name-checking twenty, thirty years hence. This is as experimental as Air has ever been and, by all indications, ever will be. The critical reaction, however, stunned Nicolas and Jean-Benoit into a near decade of great but less and less adventurous music, right on down from Talkie Walkie to Love 2. I feel like Charlton Heston screaming at the half-buried Statue of Liberty when describing the genius of this record. What’s happened has happened. But, that shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying this perfectly wonderful album.
Let me explain why 10,000 Hz Legend might just be the most underrated album of all time…
Each song on the album is a world unto itself. It’s as if Air wrote eleven albums within an album, or eleven different cuts to the face of the diamond. “Electronic Performers” starts with a stuttering beat and David Gilmour-style guitar picking that sounds like an unused riff from their Virgin Suicides album, before morphing into the always-welcome motorik beat. Jean-Benoit runs his voice through a vocoder and sings as if the two musicians have become synthesizers. The two distinct rhythms eventually become entwined as the song draws to a close.
Now, to someone who loved Moon Safari, this song is a challenge—the pivotal moment of 10,000 Hz Legend. A gauntlet through which only the chosen will pass. If you cannot see both the humor and the neat little speculative fiction narrative nestled in the lyrics and sounds, then abandon ship. By no means the best song on the album, it was a statement that this wasn’t Moon Safari Redux.
Those who pass through the gauntlet will be rewarded by the robotic love letter of “How Does It Make You Feel.” This song is wonderful for all sorts of reasons, chief among them that the Pink Floyd tempo, beat and guitar stylings used in Virgin Suicides merge with Air’s more erotic sensibilities. They’ve somehow managed to subvert the angsty, paranoid cynicism of Roger Waters and company, and fashioned a tale of a lovesick robot that almost seems more human in the end than Pink Floyd ever was. Roger Manning, Jr. (of Imperial Drag and Moog Cookbook) drops in to offer his unique talents on the synthesizer and his vocals on the chorus. And as the song draws to a close, the robot asks his love, “So… How does this make you feel?” in a voice that evokes Stephen Hawking. To which she replies, “Well… I really think you should quit smoking.” Makes one wonder what exactly the male robot expected the lady robot to feel.
“Radio #1” parodies bad radio programming, and sounds as if Jeff Lynne produced Roxy Music with Brian Eno rejoining on synthesizers. The drums are great, the melody superb, and the vocals are probably the best Air has offered—with help from Jason Falkner (a friend of Roger Manning’s). Beck provides vocals on the next track “The Vagabond,” which is, despite what critics might have said at the time of the album’s release, a great song. This is one of those perfect tracks to listen to in the hazy light of the summer, when the sun is crashing into the horizon, and you find yourself in a car driving with your friends, and before you know it the daylight’s extinguished and the stars are poking through the sky in groups of three and four. And what better way to start a song but with a harmonica, lonely guitar picking and the lines “Golden waves, In all directions, I could lose my soul right here… Colour lights, On the runway, Makes a stranger feel unchained…” Mmmm… Now that’s golden goodness.
But the feel-good atmosphere that Air create with Beck gives way to the darker, more cinematic tone poem opening of “Radian,” a song that shifts with the help of harp chords at 2:55 to something approximating Burt Bacharach jamming with Arthur Verocai for, let’s say, some lost 1970’s Warren Beatty bedroom farce. You say, “What… Warren Beatty and Air?” And I say, yes: Warren Beatty and Air. There’s something very Beatty about their style anyway, so it’s totally appropriate. One might say that they are the Warren Beatty’s of sound. Ambitious. Erotic. Diverse. Unstoppable.
The next track “Lucky and Unhappy” is a personal favorite. The synthesizer rhythm sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard. Lisa Papineau lends her breathy vocals in a duet with Jean Benoit, who sings free of processing to great effect. Any attempt to describe the sound of this song would only fall short. But, I cannot resist this one: if Tangerine Dream knew how to write pop songs, this is what they might have composed.
The second half starts with a deft tonal shift in “Sex Born Poison,” an electronic fairy tale evocative of Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction stories, which lulls the listener in with delicately-picked guitar, bells coated in layers of reverb, a soft bassline and accents of a Wurlitzer. The vocals, once again, revert to a vocoded state but seem as if they are becoming more human. The robot sings of dying in the arms of some unnamed love, by way of either a “gun of life” or “poison.” In the chorus, the voice calling back is that of suGar Yoshinaga of Japanese band Buffalo Daughter. Yoshinaga initially sings in Japanese in a chorus that swells with synthesisized string arrangements. When the mood shifts back to the more delicate verse, Yoshinaga asks, “Who dares to wake me?” Apparently it is some “Prince of the Biomass” (most likely the robot from the first verse). This Prince can create waves of intimacy, which Yoshinaga’s character is willing to embrace, for she has love that can last centuries. However, she’s just not that interested right now. (Isn’t that always the case?) From there the lyrics get even more technologically surrealistic, until the music spins off into the stratosphere with a crescendo of synths, horns and percussion. A true wonder of a tune.
“People in the City” sounds most like what Air ended up with musically on Talkie Walkie and Pocket Symphony. It is rather somnambulistic but in a totally evocative way (like the underrated Pocket Symphony). The song is piano-driven, adorned with acoustic guitar and ambient electronic chords. Jean Benoit’s natural voice plays against the robot’s voice, and the conversation, or shall we say “mini-musical,” is about people going about their day in a monotonous robotic daydream.
Without a doubt, the crowning achievement of 10,000 Hz Legend is “Wonder Milky Bitch,” a song that begins with what sounds like an electronic Mouth Harp over top Wurlitzer chords and acoustic guitar. The opening gives way to sparkling synth arpeggios and a nice little piano progression before shifting into a country-western motif by way of Ennio Morricone, complete with whistling. The song’s narrator is a half-robotic Leonard Cohen-Lee Hazlewood hybrid cowboy who sings of a “country girl… back in town from her country house,” who came to him with her “muddy boots.” He fancies her a “wonder milky bitch.” Perhaps this has something to do with a creamy white and heaving bosom, but this is mere conjecture. The next few lines suggest that milky might mean something else entirely. The cowboy notes that the country girl hates make-up and arithmetic in his characteristic way of speaking. He celebrates how she tastes, touches and swallows him—drinking him like a bloody mary. This is where the second interpretation of “wonder milky bitch” comes into focus. It seems she has a particular talent with this artificial cowboy. Other questions to be asked:
1) Is he, in fact, a robot?
2) If so, what exactly is the country girl swallowing? Battery juices? Something like the white fluids of the androids in Alien and Aliens?
3) If he is human, why is he singing like a robot as she pleasures him? Is this some elaborate fantasy?
4) Is the narrator actually dreaming this encounter?
5) Is he delusional, but thinks he’s a robot cowboy?
I’m not quite sure. The evidence is scant, but the narrative is as good as anything Philip K. Dick or Lem imagined, only Air did it on a micro level inside a pop song. At 3:58 the song shifts back into the electronic Mouth Harp and acoustic guitar, supplemented with an organ arpeggio, strings and angelic hymns sung in praise of the wonder milky bitch. Really, this might just be Air’s single greatest song.
“Don’t Be Light” marks the beginning of the end of this magnificent album. A robot sings “Don’t Be Light” while an angelic choir floats in like Wagner’s Valkyries, followed by Jean Benoit singing what the robot sang only a few seconds ago. A brief moment of soaring strings leads directly into a motorik beat, spare synth notes and fuzzed out lead guitar courtesy of Nicolas Godin, who is shredding like you’ve never heard a Frenchmen shred before. Beck comes out of nowhere with some spoken word lyrics about wildlife, cave singing, a master’s hand, banging on gold tambourines, cross hairs, transient guns and “trading desires on the banquet line,” before losing himself in a verbal reverie of la, la, la’s. Air close 10,000 Hz Legend with “Caramel Prisoner,” which begins with bleeping, dial-like synth arpeggios flying by like dopplers, underneath which sounds a dark ambient tone. Then it seems as if space ships are racing by every few seconds until the gentle humming of male vocals drifts in, intent on sending us into the farthest reaches of space. An acoustic guitar fades in for a few bars before it is all over.
Now, if you get the Japanese import of 10,000 Hz Legend, there is a bonus track called “The Way You Look Tonight,” which might have made a rather nice coda for the album if not for “Caramel Prisoner.” Jean Benoit sings softly erotic over minor and major chord changes, Wurlitzer flourishes and a thick, resonant bassline. In the background, a subtle field of ambient synthesizers and snapping fingers provide additional atmosphere before cymbals crash and a bass synth blisters and bursts. If you don’t have the Japanese import, definitely “find” this song.
10,000 Hz Legend is not the work of two self-indulgent Gauls. No. Air wrote this album for you. For the glory of man. Join them and the rest of the minority of Hz fanatics who know the real truth: this album has no precedents or imitators. It is sui generis. The rest of you can keep Kid A, while we lose ourselves in 10,000 Hz Legend.