A launch sequence commences halfway through “Seven Stars,” an early track on Air’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune. One would expect some element of bombast, say a cymbal crash or a horn blast, to greet the listener at the end of the fifteen-second countdown. Instead, the music conspicuously fades and all that’s left is a brisk bass-guitar pattern and the sound of a heartbeat. If you’re a fan of the French duo, your heart may begin thump right along. This is the album you’ve been waiting for, Air’s grand return to the cosmos, the proper follow-up to Moon Safari.
Fourteen years after their seminal debut, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Duncke have failed to deliver an album half as accomplished. Though they have shown flashes of brilliance, their post-Safari work has been limp by comparison. Talkie Walkie, impressive at the time, sounded better following the maddening 10, 000 HZ Dream. Pocket Symphony and Love 2 flirted with self-parody. Sure, The Virgin Suicides was a bright spot, but for me, only “Playground Love” still shines.
Air’s lackluster track record makes Le Voyage Dans La Lune all the more remarkable. Godin and Dunkel are proven craftsmen. But who knew they still had such terrific melodies, inventive chord progressions, and left-field ideas in them? The prestigious, and prodigious, task of scoring a restored version of Georges Méliès’ 1902 sci-fi classic brought urgency to the work. They completed the original sixteen-minute score in a week, and were so inspired by the project that they fleshed it out into a full, and thankfully compact, album. Air’s reverence for Méliès, France’s national treasure, is evident throughout. La Lune jumps for joy at its very existence.
This is not just another soundtrack album. These eleven tracks are true songs and are worthy apart from their cinematic utility. “Seven Stars,” La Lune’s gorgeous pop standout, features a beguiling performance by Beach House’s Victoria Legrand. But it’s not the song I return to. The instrumentals are even more infectious. The full-throttle thrust of “Parade,” with its marching band drumbeat and descending, crunchy guitar melodies, yanks Air off the couch and onto the dance floor. “Sonic Armada,” the duo’s best track since “Sexy Boy,” passes around its 70’s lounge melody with glee, a wedge of lunar cheese that ages to perfection the more you hear it.
The special edition of the album includes the restored film, which premiered to a rapturous audience at Cannes last year. The full album can be properly savored on its own, but seeing Méliès’ still-staggering special effects played atop of Air’s score puts the duo’s work into proper context. The seventeen seconds of “Homme Lune” may seem tossed-off on the album. Hear it while watching the iconic image of a rocket landing — splat! — into the eye of the moon and marvel at Air’s achievement. Album closer “Lava” is even more beautiful when the Earth rises above the film’s astronomic adventurers.
Le Voyage Dans La Lune is Air’s magnum opus, no doubt. Moon Safari has been overly praised. Maybe Air has been too. But Georges Méliès, the muse of the moment (please see Hugo) has inspired an album so expert that it really doesn’t matter either way. Air’s second trip to the moon is as exhilarating as its source material. Air's lovely and inventive cargo sticks its landing. The man in the moon is smiling somewhere.