Wednesday, October 13, 2010

October 13: Air, "All I Need"

Artist: Air
Song: "All I Need"
Album: Moon Safari
Year: 1998

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Though it is often far more difficult to track than the progression of a single style and its combination with newer sounds, there are a number of points in history where one can see actual trends in society shape new musical styles.  While a majority of these occurrences are due to drastic social change or other instances of historical significance, there is at least one case where the impact that the mood of the general public seemed to seap into new musical styles.  After the initial crush of "grunge" kicked off the 1990's, there was a rather widespread sense of relaxation, often to the point of almost slothful behavior.  This was reflected in the more laid-back, carefree music that began to emerge, and there are few genres that it impacted more than that of the electronic style of music.  While the 1980's and early 1990's were dominated by techno and house music, as the decade waned, down-tempo and ambient sounds began to gain traction, and few artists pushed this style forward more than the French duo known as Air.  After releasing a few albums that showed great promise, the group catapulted the genre of ambient electronic music into the mainstream with the release of their 1998 record, Moon Safari.  Filled with unparalleled sonic journeys, the album remains one of the finest even more than a decade later.  Serving as a brilliant diversion from the rest of the album in every sense of the word, few songs in the down-tempo/ambient genre command the same respect and attention as one finds in Air's 1998 single, "All I Need."

From the moment "All I Need" begins, the clashing of styles is instantly evident, as the spaced-out pulses descend into the deep grooving bassline and acoustic guitar.  Completely the work of Nicolas Godin and Jean-BenoĆ®t Dunckel, it is songs like "All I Need" that show that the group paid close attention to what made their previous work good, as well as the work of others making similar music.  Through this study of their own creations, they found the ideal balance in sounds, and it is this aspect that sets both the song and the album so far above the work of their peers.  The way in which the various, often distant sounds are able to fuse together into a single, meandering musical landscape is perfect in a way all its own, and it is this formula that served as the blueprint for countless acts that followed.  Not only do the instruments themselves clash with one another, but the duo are able to strike a similar balance in the actual arrangement behind the verse and chorus sections of the song.  "All I Need" serves as yet another example of the idea of "less is more," as there are moments when the music is uncharacteristically sparse for electronic movement, but then swells at other points, taking the listener on a wonderfully unique musical journey.  Though the guitar anchors the song in a consistent mood, it is the synthesized progressions and sounds that give the song its amazing level of depth and lull the listener into an almost hypnotic state.  The way that Air is able to mesmerize the listener, whilst never becoming boring is "the" trick of down-tempo/ambient music, and it has rarely been carried out better than one finds on "All I Need."

However, just looking at the musical aspect of "All I Need," it is largely similar to the rest of the songs on Moon Safari, and the one piece that sets the song far above the others is the presence of the one and only Beth Hirsch.  Much like the music over which she sings, Hirsch is able to bring an amazing power and mood to the song, yet never gets too loud or breaks the overall mellow feeling.  Without question one of the strongest vocalists of her generation, there is a pure, simple beauty to her voice, and as it soars across the bridge and chorus sections, it is as close to musical bliss as one will find anywhere.  It is in the performance of Beth Hirsch that the song moves away from the rest of the album, as her vocals alone make the song the most emotional and gripping point of the entire record.  The uncanny power and soul in her singing are reminiscent of the great jazz and soul singers of decades earlier, and this is further enforced by the simple, yet moving lyrics.  There is a strange understanding between Hirsch and the listener when she sings, "...all I need is a peace of this mind, then I can celebrate..." as there is a unique tension that can be found within the way she delivers the lines.  Open to many interpretations, the vocals on "All I Need" could just as easily been recorded decades earlier, and yet they manage to fit in perfectly with the modern feel of the music created by Air.

Proving that good down-tempo/ambient music need not be exclusively created from trip-hop often overflowing with overused samples or techno oddities, Air managed to create an entire album of groundbreaking music that firmly cemented this new style of electronic music.  Presenting vast musical landscapes, the duo managed to convey great amounts of emotion through their unique brand of chilled-out, mind-twisting music.  Nothing short of a classic, Moon Safari remains the blueprint for the genre, and the songs sound just as fresh today as they did when they were first released.  While an overwhelming majority of the album is lyricless synthetic musical mastery, it is when they involve vocalist Beth Hirsch that their style moves to an entirely new level.  The delicate, yet warm and almost enchanting voice of Hirsch is what truly makes "All I Need" such a special song on an album that is already so far beyond its peers.  Though the other songs on Moon Safari are just as mesmerizing, it is Hirsch's vocals that create a strong emotional connection, and it is this aspect that separates the song from the others.  In literally every aspect, "All I Need" pushed the boundaries on what was thought to be possible within the realm of electronic music, and it is much the reason that all these years later, Air's 1998 single remains such an extraordinary musical achievement.

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