While Moon Safari has never enjoyed the same level of cultural significance in the States, its status as a sleeper hit is secure, as it managed to shift nearly 400k copies as of 2012.
Melding ‘70s soft-rock calm with space-age aesthetics, Air eased their way into the late ‘90s pop lexicon with Moon Safari. Riding on the waves of both trip-hop and ambient electronica gradually leaking into the mainstream, the French duo (made up of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel) provided the soundtrack for both the morning after comedown following many a drug-fueled club night as well as upper-class cocktail parties and soirees. As the Beeb once put it in a write up for the album’s tenth anniversary, “it [was] used as the background music for every lifestyle programme ever made in 1998… there’s barely a music fan over 25 who doesn’t own it or know every note.”
In England, that was almost certainly the case. After hitting the top ten during its first week, Moon Safari spent a hugely impressive 110 weeks in the chart, as it bopped around the lower reaches until early 2005 — a good seven years after its release. According to the UK’s official charts, it ranked as the sixth best-selling “Prog” album from 2001 to 2015, beating out other, arguably higher-profile contemporary acts such as The Flaming Lips and Sigur Ros. Their sales were, undoubtedly, bolstered by surprisingly muscular television performances — a punkish take on single “Kelly Watch the Stars” with a young Phoenix backing is a personal highlight and surely sold them to a then-increasingly rock-hungry England.
However, upon Moon Safari’s release, “kitschy” seemed to be the one word that constantly popped-up amongst critics. Not necessarily a slight, but there seemed to be a general consensus that, while the album was quite good, there was a certain level of gaudiness attached to it. “This disc is a bit too cheeky for daily consumption,” declared Pitchfork, while Spin opined that the duo veered “deep into the cheesy heart of whiteness … presented without irony.”
In 2018, chic would perhaps be more accurate. With the once-maligned genre of soft rock experiencing a major comeback lately, Moon Safari sounds more visionary and forward thinking than it did in the ‘90s.
Opener “La Femme D’argent,” with its silky smooth bassline and chiming keyboard, sets the scene perfectly, teasing sounds yet to come. Ranging from the self-declared “space-age Carpenters” of Beth Hirsch featuring “All I Need” to the Burt Bacharach horns of “Ce Martin-la” and orchestral flourishes of “Talisman,” Moon Safari manages to incorporate a wealth of instrumentation. Their strict adherence to analog tones—Korg MS20s, Moogs and Rhodes echo throughout—gives the album a soothingly warm and serene ambience. “The world … just for you … for nobody else,” coos Dunckel’s vocoder-infused, robotic voice in “New Star in the Sky,” his melody echoed through tranquil mellotron flutes and fuzzy synths. Hirsch returns the amour in the swooning “You Make It Easy”: “You make it easy to watch the world with love /You make it easy so watch me fall in love.”
While their sound may have been rooted in classic soft rock and romantic French pop, usually the result of a handful of songwriters, producers and performers, their studio-driven approach mirrored the practices of electronic producers. “Rock music is not really in our culture,” Godin would later state, “But electronic music is different. When we discovered it, suddenly we had an outlet.” This DIY, self-produced approach would lend itself to the album’s appeal—two mysteriously suave gents from France dealing in tones both elegant and rich across a starry-eyed sojourn through the cosmos.
While Moon Safari has never enjoyed the same level of cultural significance in the States, its status as a sleeper hit is secure, as it managed to shift nearly 400k copies as of 2012. In celebration of their 20th anniversary as a band, Air toured America for the first time in seven years last year. The two shows I caught were met with a small but decidedly dedicated group of fans, whether we were huddled together under a tiny tent at New York’s rainy Governors Ball or a decently-sized ballroom in Boston.
Likewise, Air’s influence among musicians is rather niche, but filled with dedication. “They opened my eyes to new studio possibilities,” praised Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. “It made me realise that it doesn’t have to sound like a band, it can sound like something totally different.” Meanwhile, legendary French pop chanteuse Francois Hardy was an early supporter, taking lead vocals in “Sexy Boy” B-side, “Jeanne.”
Compared to modern electronic music, Moon Safari still sounds otherworldly. Dunckel later reminisced, “I knew our livelihood depended on Air being successful… So I poured everything into it.” Twenty years on, Moon Safari’s serene soundscape, exotic instrumentation and heartfelt sentiments are relaxed and comforting, a worthy comedown album needed in an increasingly troubled world.