In a way, Air never surpassed Moon Safari. And yet, in another way this comes so frustratingly short of being a real proper classic that I'm still probably more eager to listen to some of their other albums over this on a given day. The reputation of Moon Safari doesn't seem to be as big or notable as it used to be either, but its list of merits is notable. It launched Air straight to the top upon its release, it spearheaded (even if didn’t start) the chill-out trend that cropped up around the millennial years and it's still the main reason why Air continue to have a relatively high profile despite their public presence having faded some time ago already. Which is unfortunate, because the album really does deserve accolades.
For starters, if there's one thing in particular to note about Moon Safari is that it sounds wonderful. It's a cool and collected album, but the level of skill that Benoit and Dunckel display here is borderline boastfully arrogant. Not only are the general production and arrangements absolutely on point, but the ace in the hole is how the obvious retro throwback feel, hailing towards 60′s lounge and 70′s hi-fi studio wizardry, has been so well augmented with a modern flair that the album even now sounds fresh and in-date. While it arguably paved way for a lot of chill-out music and it sure is a laid back album, the overall tone is more about how cool it sounds - as if Air decided to take all the stereotypical notions of French cool and make it a real, tangible thing. Nothing exemplifies all this better than "La femme d'argent", arguably the album's signature song and its opener. It grooves with such smoothness that it slides off the speakers, painting a beautiful picture with its rich sonic palette as it ebbs and flows so effortlessly.
From there, Moon Safari goes from strength to strength. "Kelly, Watch the Stars" frolics through the air like a dance anthem that decided to take it easy one day (although, admittedly, I do prefer the peppier single mix); "All I Need" is the musical definition of a blissful summer's day; "Talisman" adds a touch of drama with its cinematic orchestral sweeps, and "Sexy Boy"... "Sexy Boy" really makes a point about that notion of confidence brought before. It's a ludicrous song, and really makes no sense between the throbbing bass, the distorted guitar walls, dreamland verses and Godin's sensual falsetto whispering about idealistic manliness into your ear. And yet the duo fully embrace the ridiculousness, convert it into effortless cool and even daringly slam it right after the incredibly classy "La femme d'argent". It has nothing to do with the rest of the album and yet without it Moon Safari would be a lesser deal.
But - and you knew there was going to be a 'but' - it's clear that the big signature moments were placed in front of the album and the latter half is more of a pleasant comedown from the initial heights. It still sounds lovely of course, and the pastoral "Ce matin la" and the stargazing bite-size pop nugget "Remember" are solid continuation from what came before. But then, as nice as "You Make It Easy" is it's still a reheated version of "All I Need" (same tricks, same singer, less impact) and as wistfully pretty as "New Star in the Sky" can get, it sways along a little too long for its own good without doing much for most of its duration. "Le voyage de Penelope" is so nondescript that after so, so many years of owning the album and literally having listened to it an hour before I started writing this paragraph, I still can't remember how it actually goes, which ends the album on a major flat note. Which is a shame because up until the last stretch of songs, Moon Safari was on a straight and clear path to the canon, and then it's just gone and muddled things up for itself. It’s why I always remember Moon Safari being incredible, but never feel quite as overwhelmed by it whenever I reach the end of the disc.
That Moon Safari doesn't quite reach its high ambitions is a little surreal, given how out of the ordinary it sounds nearly every step of the way. Not a lot of albums have gone these roads since even when they've mined the same inspirations, including anything by Air themselves, and that's a lot to do with how Godin and Dunckel manage to keep everything so timeless, blending together the old and the new and gluing them together with the golden-eared production. It'd be perfectly fair to call this Air's most essential album because it feels like the perfected form of what the duo have aimed to strive for, with all the subsequent developments since sounding like sidetracks. What they created here is something thoroughly lovely - a perfect sunset evening soundtrack, a head-nodding groove, a carefully detailed daydream. At that stage, debating whether this really is a classic or not seems almost like splitting hairs: it’s a lush experience nonetheless.