To Air Is Human

Air's Nicolas Godin finds life at the heart of the electronic age

The latest recording by the Parisian duo Air, 10,000 Hz Legend, has received radically mixed notices. Some critics trumpet it as the most intriguing artistic statement yet from an act as distinctive and contrary as any on the contemporary international scene, whereas others dismiss it as thematically overwrought, musically underdeveloped twaddle. But virtually no one is on the fence regarding the disc -- which is just the way Air's Nicolas Godin prefers it.

"I like when someone likes something or hates something and then explains why," notes Godin, 28, in an accent as heavy as a fallen soufflé. "If someone dislikes something with a lot of cleverness, it is interesting. That's why I like when there are very strong positions. I even like when people don't say what they think but they take a position just to argue -- but I am French, you know."

Indeed he is -- not that anyone who's read about Godin and partner Jean-Benoît Dunckel of late could have missed this snippet of information. Scribe after scribe has used 10,000 Hz Legend as the hook for pieces about the "French invasion," an alleged musical assault that also includes Daft Punk and Mirwais, the producer behind Madonna's most recent hits; nearly all of these journalists take advantage of the topic to joke about the supposed inability of the French to rock -- a thesis that Godin is more than willing to confirm. "French people have the taste of shit in music," he declares. "That is why there has been such bad music in our country for 30 years. When I'm making music, I want to forget that I'm French."

Jean-Benot Dunckel and Nicolas Godin of Air
Jean-Benot Dunckel and Nicolas Godin of Air

At the same time, Godin acknowledges that the relentless emphasis on his nationality is becoming tiresome: "In Europe, people talk more about us being from France than about our music. And in France, it is the worst country for us. They only talk about that we are a success in England and what that means for France, but, to me, there is more to success than this. That's why I'm so relaxed about the response to the album, because I did what I wanted to do, you know? If I tried to do some music to please some people and it doesn't work, it would be very sad. But now I did the music I had to do, and even if we don't sell any albums, I could take refuge in the music that I did, because I know it was a good way to do it.

"Making money is not that important," he continues, "because when you have a cancer or AIDS or something like that, money will not help you to survive. To me, it is much more important to do something interesting in your life before dying."

With 10,000 Hz Legend, Godin and Dunckel have achieved this flamboyantly expressed goal: Even those who loathe the record will have a hard time dismissing it as ordinary. Before this release, the twosome's efforts were principally instrumental, but nine of Legend's 11 tracks feature lyrics as quirky and eccentric as the melodies and rhythms that accompany them.

According to Godin, these words deal mainly with "sexual frustration, which I think is a big problem with our society right now. I think the sexual potential on earth is not shared by everybody -- only by a few elite." But "Electronic Performers" and "How Does It Make You Feel?" -- the integrated cuts that kick off the platter -- deal less with the mating habits of the bourgeoisie versus those of the proletariat than with the coital peccadilloes of man in the machine age. The first of these songs is an odd melange of synthesizer washes, assembly-line thumping and acoustic piano etudes over which an effects-laden, androidlike voice dabbles in romantic existentialism ("We need to use envelope filters to say how we feel ... I want to patch my soul on your brain"). On "How Does It Make You Feel?" this same character, or one very much like it, offers up postindustrial pillow talk ("I am feeling very warm right now ... Well, I really think you should quit smoking") amid hooky repetitions of the title by an angelic chorus. The results suggest Bicentennial Man as a softcore-porn film, not a family-friendly Robin Williams vehicle.

But just as Legend seems on the verge of turning into a sci-fi concept album -- The Many Loves of Mr. Roboto, perhaps? -- the Air pair mixes things up. Special guests carry part of the load: "The Vagabond," a futuristic folk song, and the heavenly dance ditty "Don't Be Light" both feature the singing skills of one Beck Hansen, a longtime fan of the group, and "Sex Born Poison," an eerie bit of kinky automation, includes some words of wisdom from Buffalo Daughter's Sugar and Yumiko, who croon in Japanese. Still, Godin and Dunckel are more than capable of getting weird all by themselves. Witness the twisted pop songs "Radio #1" and "Lucky and Unhappy," as well as "Wonder Milky Bitch," a twisted ode to oral sex ("Tasting, touching, swallowing me/Drinking me like Bloody Mary") that's inexplicably accented with Jew's-harp twanging and other country & western touches. Hmmmm.

Next Page »