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The cover art for Pocket Symphony, Air’s fifth full-length album, features mini translucent sculptures of the synth duo’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel. The plastic Frenchmen stand poised, looking pensive but clearly lifeless and immobile. Likewise, the album, while thoughtful, lacks the sensuous throb that made their best earlier songs come alive; emotive ambience has always been Air’s selling point, but Pocket Symphony sounds calculatedly detached. The opener, the instrumental “Space Maker,” ambles along on guitar and percussion, gaining synths, and eventually giving way to a brooding piano. That’s one of four instrumentals on the album, all of which sound like they’d be the perfect accompaniment to a bath, a book, or a nap. There’s none of the sex appeal of Premiers Symptômes’ “J’ai Dormi Sous l’Eau” or Moon Safari’s “La Femme d’Argent”—the warmth of the latter song, nearly fit for a cocktail lounge, comes from the undulating string-like sounds beneath the space-age synths. While lyrics generally have taken a back seat to Air’s carefully crafted instrumentation, the sensuously gossamer sound fits best with breathy French. “Mer du Japon,” the band’s first track en Français since Moon Safari, is also Pocket Symphony’s closest facsimile of that 1998 pop milestone’s layered, seductive sound. It very nearly echoes the hook of “Sexy Boy,” as a steady and vibrant piano and synths keep pace with the simple lyrics, “Je perds la raison/Dans la Mer du Japon.” The talk of the Sea of Japan (albeit with one’s sanity lost) dovetails nicely with Godin’s recently acquired koto skills. Elsewhere, Air’s signature tales of kid love remain, though the dainty “Once Upon a Time,” where Dunckel whisper-sings “I’m a little boy, you’re a little girl,” sounds lackluster compared to the murky “Playground Love,” written for The Virgin Suicides score. On “One Hell of a Party,” an ode to the morning after as written and sung by a restrained Jarvis Cocker, the music is stagnant: There’s a little piano, a bit of synth, and some string flourishes, but the sound neither builds up nor breaks down. It’s a relief when the electronic pings of a standout track like “Napalm Love” set in, and the disc also improves two songs later with “Left Bank,” a mellow, Beatlesque musing on loss. Pocket Symphony comes more from the head than the heart, and its restrained ruminations on love make for pleasant if unexciting listening. Without a consistent emotional pull from lyrics or the music, many of the tracks seem as cold and lifeless as those plastic figurines of Godin and Dunckel and the black-jacket art world they inhabit.
Air plays Wednesday, May 9, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 265-0930.