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The greatest music debuts of all time #5: Air’s Moon Safari

Along with Norwegian duo Röyksopp, who formed the same year, Air were one of the very first acts to make chillout music cool and, dare I say, fashionable to listen to. As Jean-Benoît Dunckel, one half of the French electronica twosome, turns 50 today, their debut album Moon Safari remains a thoroughly lovely listen, combining chillout aesthetic with downtempo percussion, whilst adding that crucial pop element that made the record such a success. 

I have a lot of time for Moon Safari. It’s pleasant, comforting, and frequently absorbing. When the record is at its best, it goes well beyond background listening. While nostalgia no doubt plays a part, Air’s debut still sounds smooth as butter. Kicking off with a stunning opening stretch, it glides along throughout its forty-three-minute playtime, full of delightful electronic bass lines that hit the spot and hooks that’ll stay with you long after you’ve finished listening.

Opening track La femme d’argent is an absolute dream, starting strong and setting the mood for the rest of the album. Sensational, smooth keys and funky basslines glide through the percussion like velvet.

Managing to be lush and lurid at the same time, Sexy Boy is a gorgeous downtempo anthem, if such a thing exists, due largely to such a simple yet catchy chorus, and once again benefitting from a sumptuous bass riff. Indeed, the basslines in general are superb, keeping Moon Safari flowing fluently, a bit like passive and luxurious muzak but with no shortage of admirable qualities.

The soft cooings of Beth Hirsch’s vocals are everything the record deserves, and when they do feature they shine, such as on All I Need and You Make it Easy. They compliment the downbeat/pop balance while sounding slightly reminiscent of Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons, albeit with a tad more sunshine and French Café calm blended in.

Kelly Watch The Stars wastes no time flinging you across the cosmos. Even midway through, in the depths of the album, Talisman and Remember both hold their own as a lounging Bond theme and robot ballad respectively. The vocal melodies are simple, yet often engaging enough for them to stick. There’s that balance again. Overall, Moon Safari is a treat; warm, inviting, and frankly irresistible.

Certainly, for the first two-thirds of its tracklist, Moon Safari is sublime, but setting the rose tinted glasses aside, it’s the final third that dampens the mood slightly. While there are no glaring errors, the last three or four tracks are far more downtempo, drifting off into the abyss, melding together in a way that’s kind of like superior muzak.

Le voyage de Pénélope is a lush, shining jewel, but as a closer, it doesn’t feel like a conclusion and the upshot is an album you don’t remember finishing. In isolation, Ce matin-là is a wistful, breezy track with a bashful horn section and swathes of strings and New Star In The Sky shimmers and meanders along beautifully.

I appreciate it’s a difficult feat to retain the luxurious, relaxing vibe for over 40 minutes whilst also keeping the listener’s full attention, but the end result does make Moon Safari seem top heavy, if only a little. I don’t doubt for a second that a rearrangement of tracks would bolster this to being a wholly brilliant album, but as it is, it remains a vivid sensory kick that paved the way for the duo’s ensuing career.

The arrangements are sophisticated, the mix is bubbly and colourful, and the vocals drift through the track list like a good daydream. Props to Air for making vocoders sound sort of beautiful, too.

Steve Pafford


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