We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
1998 could hardly have been a better year for Air. The French duo’s long-playing debut, Moon Safari, was almost universally adored—a hit with the jet set, the Diesel set, Parisians, wannabe Parisians, and critics who like to use the word “cinematic.” But on 2000’s Virgin Suicides score, Air began a withdrawal from Moon Safari’s buoyant, exuberant electropop that would culminate in the next year’s 10,000 Hz Legend. A willfully tough-to-down cocktail of krautrock and Kid A, that sophomore LP unsurprisingly fell flat with listeners who just wanted to hear the groop play Space Age bachelor-pad music. So you couldn’t blame the Messrs. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel if the new Talkie Walkie were merely Moon Safari Part Deux. Yet that’s not exactly the case: To be sure, Talkie Walkie signals a conscious return to simpler song structures. And it’s an Air record—babies will be made to it. But you won’t find Buffalo Daughter or Beck hanging out in the studio. This time out, Godin and Dunckel play most of the instruments and, aside from a stray backing vocal on a few tracks, handle all the singing duties themselves. And though space still figures prominently, it’s the kind between words and notes: Here, the band downplays sophistication in favor of simplicity. Take slow-burning opener “Venus”: Aside from an overdone first couplet—“You could be from Venus/I could be from Mars”—its effect derives from restraint rather than excess. As hand claps, skeletal piano, and a dusting of acoustic guitar move the song pleasantly along, delicate synths bubble to the surface and church bells intone ominously. The propulsive “Surfing on a Rocket”—an obvious single—soaks in a pool of reverb before muted, single-string runs on an electric guitar move it into a singalong chorus. Elsewhere, the record finds the band refining some of its trademarks: “Alpha Beta Gaga” reimagines the sparkling semidisco of “Sexy Boy” with a twangy descending riff that gives way to whistling, and “Cherry Blossom Girl” and “Universal Traveler” both appropriate the tenderly fingerpicked guitar pattern of Moon Safari’s “All I Need” but hang it on better hooks. Of course, fans of the kind of retrofication on which Air has built its career are a fickle lot, having long since abandoned their aviator shades for trucker caps, sixers of Pabst, and, uh, dance-punk. Remember Paris? It was, like, so 1998. —Chris Hagan