From Surfing on a Rocket to a symphony in your pocket

By Amy Shaunette

Air has always given me the impression that they know something I don’t. The elusive French duo is mysterious but friendly; wise but playful. They manage to amaze and impress while still offering a comforting kind of musical friendship. Air’s fourth studio album, “Pocket Symphony,” out March 6 on Astralwerks, delivers their usual gentle words and pleasantly haunting notes while displaying unmistakable progress.

“Pocket Symphony” isn’t a new Air, but it’s a different Air. You can always count on Air for something whimsical and pretty, but “Pocket Symphony” also leans toward serious and somber. The title alone is a good descriptor for the songs: a symphony is serious, with little room for laughter frivolity, but a symphony in your pocket? That’s just silly. On “Pocket Symphony” Air has the uncanny ability to play sorrowful, dark music that somehow leaves the listener feeling calm and hopeful. In my opinion, Air’s mission is to make beautiful music, a sort of aesthetics for the ears. “Pocket Symphony” further proves this mission accomplished.

In an article on the band’s official website, Jean-Benoit Dunckel says he and band mate Nicolas Godin were trying to move away from the pop sound with “Pocket Symphony.” Godin spent a year learning Eastern instruments like the koto and the shamisen under the instruction of a Japanese master. There was quite the buzz on the Internet anticipating the new Asian influences present in “Pocket Symphony,” but the effect of Godin’s musical exploration on Air’s sound is only apparent in a handful of songs. Air’s effort to incorporate a new style is admirable, but they don’t pull it off. If Air tried to pick up where they left off with “Alone in Kyoto,” the flawless Asian-inspired song from 2004’s “Talkie Walkie,” they failed, but if the album’s success is measured by sound for sound’s sake, “Pocket Symphony” is a masterpiece.

It’s hard to pick the album’s highlights. Air has always been able to cover all the bases, creating music ideal for sleeping, for sexing, or for silly interpretive dancing. They’ll have you sobbing one minute and smiling like a fool the next, and that versatility is one thing that makes them so impressive. “Pocket Symphony” has its flaws—the songs that feature the twangs and chimes of classical Asian instruments seem out of place and forced, and Jarvis Cocker’s guest vocals sound like a bad coke high—but somehow it all fits together, making “Pocket Symphony”, like all Air records, an album-album, not a song-album. For the most part, it flows, becoming one long, breathtakingly beautiful song. ­­
“Napalm Love” is perhaps the catchiest song, carried by a poppy electro beat that contrasts with dark piano chords. The lyrics are haunting, with a soft voice repeating “I’m falling in love/I’m falling down, falling down/Down on the ground.” Woven between verses are a series of questions: “How strange is your love?/How warm is your love?/How tough is your love?” Air has always been more about sounds than words, but that’s not to say their lyrics aren’t powerful. Because their music takes the foreground to their lyrics, they can say a lot in simple, short lines, and “Napalm Love” does this perfectly. Similar is the ethereal, sobering “Left Bank,” with vocals almost whispering, “Without you I’m getting lost/Without you, there’s no release.” The song, like many of Air’s finest, awakens sleeping emotions—it will make you feel. It’s a great example of Air’s knowledge of what makes good electronic music great, with small noises sprinkled throughout the song, perfectly placed little dings and bops that get swept away by the constant guitar and harp like seashells in the ocean.

Every album has its gem, and “Pocket Symphony’s” is “Photograph.” It’s absolutely beautiful—slow, melodic, with the perfect balance of piano, ascending clusters of simple guitar notes, and a twinkling chime every now and then. The song is the definition of Air’s music; it’s why Air matters in the musical world. “Photograph” delivers the sound and emotion only they are capable of creating, as does the album as a whole.

While “Pocket Symphony” does show the maturation and the musical development of Air, it is also a comfortable continuation of the sound Air is famous for. Air may be a staple of the music-to-fall-asleep-to genre, but the new album isn’t another substitute for counting sheep. “Pocket Symphony” is so good, it’ll keep you awake.