Thursday, June 13, 2024

Air at Sydney Opera House review – space-age pop as exquisite as its venue

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We were promised jetpacks. Instead, gen X had neoliberalism, the new world order and pre-millennium tension. To soothe it, we got Air’s debut Moon Safari, the 1998 space-age bachelor pad album that offered a nostalgic passport back to a future that never materialised in quite the way we expected. Immediately, Air (French duo Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel) were everywhere – not in our faces, but part of our very atmosphere: in shopping malls, on soundtracks, in every cafe and lounge.

Inevitably, Moon Safari dwarfed everything the duo has produced since, and Air haven’t made an album since 2012’s brief sojourn Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), the title of which suggested they knew they would never escape the shadow of their debut. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, they’ve leaned in, playing the album in its entirety and in order, plus an extra set’s worth of songs from their half-dozen albums.

‘Familiarity hasn’t dulled Moon Safari.’ Photograph: Mikki Gomez

This weekend, as part of Vivid, it was Sydney’s turn. To see and hear Moon Safari recreated in the Sydney Opera House was a trip indeed, amplifying a sound as exquisitely sculpted and immediately identifiable as the building in which it was performed. What that performance revealed was the humanity behind this highly orchestrated, but almost entirely synthetic music – the key to Air’s success in the first place.

Flanking tour drummer Louis Delorme, Dunckel stood behind a bank of synthesisers. Godin was on bass, and as soon as he began playing the loping hook that underpins album opener La Femme D’Argent, the concert hall erupted. Familiarity hasn’t dulled Moon Safari, because it sounded familiar in the first place: even the descending chord progression of the song pays homage to Serge Gainsbourg’s tracks Melody and Cargo Culte, the bookends of his record Histoire de Melody Nelson.

At the end of the song, Air pushed out the boat a little further: Delorme became more animated, and suddenly Moon Safari began sounding more like Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive. The human frailties of the music were also laid bare on All I Need and You Make It Easy. On the album, these were sung by Beth Hirsch, with a crystalline clarity that cut through the extensive use of a vocoder on the rest of the tracks. Hirsch, sadly, did not join Air for this tour: her voice was present on All I Need, but as the oscillating burble of Dunckel’s synthesiser slowly and surely overwhelmed the song, her physical absence was deeply felt.

‘As immediately identifiable as the building in which it was performed’: the Sydney Opera House concert hall. Photograph: Mikki Gomez

Brian Eno famously wrote that ambient music must be as ignorable as it is interesting. Moon Safari may have become embedded in popular culture – to the point where every note feels pre-ordained – but its emotional spectrum is vast, with rich reserves of melancholy beneath the swelling Talisman and the widescreen cinema of Ce Matin-là.

It was all over too quickly: the last note of Le Voyage de Pénélope disappeared like a ship over the horizon, and most of the Opera House was on its feet. It was a fine spectacle, too: the three musicians dressed in dazzling white, backed by a light show as elegantly designed and in sync with the music’s themes as the original album cover.

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Over too quickly … Air’s first set. Photograph: Mikki Gomez

The second set that followed was a metaphor for the rest of Air’s career: perfectly fine, and just a little redundant. Having made their grand symphonic statement on their debut, Air were immediately left to grapple with their own legacy. Only on Highschool Lover (the theme from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides) did Air approach the pillow-soft sound of Moon Safari again, and that was the warm embrace the audience craved.

For their encore, Air gave us Electronic Performers, from their album 10 000 Hz Legend: “Riding on magnetic waves / We search new programs for your pleasure.” But Godin and Dunckel are not convincing robots, like Kraftwerk. If they were, they might have kept on making variations of Moon Safari for ever. Had they done so, the otherworldly charm of the original wouldn’t have maintained its strange fascination.

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