Whether you call it trip-hop, “downtempo” or “lounge,” the type of music that falls under this large umbrella of related genres is incredibly difficult to pull off without sounding unbearably corny, boring or both. Successes do exist, from Portishead to Massive Attack as well as some work by groups such as Zero 7, but as a whole, and for good reason, there’s not much out there that excites and intrigues more than it cures insomnia.
I heard Moon Safari described using some of these terms, and while not wrong per se, I discovered how meaningless they really were. The 1998 debut album of the French duo consisting of two students from Versailles, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunkel, is perhaps one of the most playful and, dare I say, cheeky albums you will ever hear. Borne out of endless tinkering and experimenting with synths, preceded by remixes and a middling EP, Moon Safari is itself an odd experiment, a mish-mash of genres and time periods.
At times sophisticated and at others melancholic yet strangely childish, the album still sounds futuristic in the same way a Lamborghini Countach still looks futuristic. Both didn’t necessarily predict the predominant aesthetics of the future, but perhaps we just haven’t really caught up.
And like the Countach, Moon Safari is both breathtaking and prone to fall apart at any moment. The fact that Moon Safari never reaches the heights it’s capable of makes it that much more fascinating. These heights, however, are teased at in the memorable opener, the instrumental “La Femme d’argent.” Anchored by a lovely, fun bassline, it nonetheless makes me feel like it should be the soundtrack to an awful B-movie, or at best (worst?) Roger Moore dumping around in space as James Bond in “Moonraker.”
“Sexy Boy,” the following track, is the prime example of how the duo, like Giorgio Moroder in Italy decades prior, transformed overwhelming corniness into something that is somehow cool. The vocoder-based vocals, whispering in French during the verses and letting out protracted versions of the title during the chorus aren’t quite D’Angelo’s croons, but the charging drumtrack and wobbling synth patterns make the track surprisingly addicting and captivating.
“All I Need,” featuring Tampa-based singer Beth Hirsch is the most “lounge”-y track on the album, but the bassline and intermittent synth flourishes elevate it above most made-for-Lifetime-commercial tracks that permeate the genre. “Ce matin-là,” another instrumental, is similar in that it is just too damn pretty for its own good, but self-aware all the same.
Air achieved some popular success after the release of Moon Safari, scoring Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” and contributing to her later film “Lost in Translation” as well. Like those films, Air’s music ended up capturing the late ’90s and early 2000s too well in a sense. In Air’s case, they were never able to recreate the purity ever-present in Moon Safari, and considering the events in the world in the following years continuing up to now, I suppose that makes sense.
The sense of self-awareness permeates the entire album and is the reason why it eclipses many of the works that followed it up in the early 2000s. “Sexy Boy” isn’t in anyway supposed to be sexy, for example, yet there’s an undeniable confidence and swagger underneath all that cheese. This is not an album for the irony-poisoned and cynical (as I personally found myself drifting towards when I first listened to it). To me, it was more of a reminder that I needed to get over myself and, well, have some fun.