You can’t accuse the members of Air of being disingenuous. When Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin named their fourth proper full-length Pocket Symphony, they weren’t bullshitting. Most every song feels capable of building into a majestic theme or suite, but is too often kept close to the vest. It’s not without value, but Pocket Symphony may be Air’s most disposable studio album.
The discovery that Pocket Symphony would be a more minimalist effort should not have come as a surprise. While Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau of M83 wrestle to create the Franco-ambient equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Air is perfectly content creating make-out music for handsome people. The lack of grander ambition is a tad dispiriting (there were signs on their wonderful 1998 debut, Moon Safari, and 2001’s 10,000 Hz Legend that they could pull off epic scale), but as long as folks like kissing, Air will keep hitting some of their marks.
Opener “Space Maker” cuts a dynamic swath: warmly strummed guitars, cascading pianos and sharp, light percussion. Producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) brings his modern, full-bodied touch to the proceedings, and at the very least, the album sounds fantastic from a purely technical standpoint. It’s too bad the songs themselves don’t hold up their end of the bargain.
When Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker lends his vocals to “One Hell of a Party,” the expectations swell, imagining what kind of bash results from the merger of Paris and Sheffield. Instead, we are exposed to the groggy, fuzzy-teethed ruminations from the next day (“Here in the burnt-out husk of the morning/ Strung-out with nothing left to say”). While the florid koto and shamisen form an exotic backbone, the track is inert. The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon later lends his vocals to the appropriately titled “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping.”
A lush decrescendo of an album, Pocket Symphony eschews the easy pop singles that made 2004’s excellent Talkie Walkie so accessible — somewhat of a shame, actually. Symphony may have more of a cinematic steadiness and flow, but the absence of songs as hauntingly memorable as “Cherry Blossom Girl” or “Surfing on a Rocket” does not make for a better work.