French film director franšois Truffaut once said that English filmmaking was a contradiction in terms. The Brits have been saying the same thing about French pop music for decades. For the discerning Anglo-Saxon music lover, the country that gave the world Jean-Michel Jarre's po-faced pomposity and the embarrassing histrionics of paunchy, ageing rocker Johnny Hallyday had an awful lot to answer for.
So when Madonna gave a Frenchman called Mirwais the job of producing half the songs on last year's Music album, it simply confirmed the extraordinary turnaround that has taken place over the past four years: French music has become cool.
This week one of the twin pioneers of this pop renaissance releases an eagerly-awaited second album. Air's 10,000 Hz Legend is a sprawling baroque extravaganza. In 60 minutes of multifaceted music, it sparkles with unlikely references: Pink Floyd, cult sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick, Eric Satie, White Album-era Beatles, German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk and the Beach Boys are all in there somewhere. But there's also impeccably modern production and the latest computer technology. Air transcends its influences to create something dazzlingly unique. The duo from Versailles -a well-off suburb west of Paris -has come up with a record staggering in its ambition, an unidentified musical object that explodes categories and looks a safe bet for the year's most influential album release.
"We didn't worry about how people were going to react," Air's keyboard specialist Jean-Benoit Dunckel explains. (Air's other half is Nicolas Godin, who mainly plays guitar and bass.) "The idea was simply to do the most demented thing possible."
When Air released its album Moon Safari early in 1998, the world discovered the awesome potential French music could have once it freed itself from its inferiority complex. While precursor Daft Punk remained rooted in the strobe-lit euphoria of dance culture, Air's eclecticism hitched up '60s film soundtracks with drum machines and spacey synthesizers to create a crisp pop sound you could listen to outside the nightclub.
This time around, the easy listening kitsch of Moon Safari has been retired in favor of a dark machine-age psychedelia, undercut with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. The opening track Electronic Performers sets the tone: amid distorted guitars, orchestral flourishes and spectral choirs, disembodied robot voices sing of love and desire.
Radio #1-the single from the new release-is a magnificently grandiose piece of synth pop with overtones of Queen and no concessions to good taste. As throughout the album, the vocals are in a globalized English that is neither British nor American. "There are some words we just can't pronounce, so we can't use them in our lyrics," Dunckel explains. "That gives us a strange approach to the English language; we play with it."
The same could be said of Air's approach to music. 10,000 Hz Legend is a record that could never have been made in Britain or America. Although it occasionally nods politely in the direction of rock'n'roll, the album has clearly been produced by people for whom Claude Debussy will always remain more important than Chuck Berry.
The Vagabond is a good example, opening with lonesome hobo harmonica wails and blues guitar. U.S. star Beck provides folksy vocals to a lament on contemporary rootlessness before the whole thing explodes into a galaxy of dissonant synth spirals and stuttering reverb. Radian builds slowly in layers of symphonic strings and acoustic guitar into an achingly beautiful instrumental anthem. Like all Air's tunes, it's a mini-soundtrack in itself, an accompaniment for one of the many moods a day can bring.
Modestly, Dunckel and Godin attribute their success to the decline of Anglo-Saxon pop into sterile nostalgia and carbon-copy teen acts. Like true Frenchmen, they cultivate a certain rebelliousness in the face of music business orthodoxy. "The entire industry has stopped taking risks," Dunckel complains. "The record companies are just delivering product to radio stations. But the current French scene is coming from home studios and that's what keeps it free and fresh. The big business music generated by record companies has been swept aside."
On the strength of 10,000 Hz Legend, you have to wish them well. By distilling our musical memories into something unmistakably-and compellingly-modern, Air has made the 21st century look a very attractive place to be. You'll never have heard anything remotely like it, but then it's not every day you come across what the French call a chef d'oeuvre.