Air has spent the better part of the last 10 years finessing its own slow-motion descent into perpetual 3 a.m. The water-colored dream pop of 1998's Moon Safari evoked images of robots buzzing happily along the Seine, but Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel have since been loath to revisit that sunny terrain, preferring instead to soundtrack the administering of man-sized sofa indentations the world over. To that end, they hit their high-water mark with 2004's Talkie Walkie, where they showcased their lustrous production skills (which recall the full-bodied mid-ranges of '70s AOR) on 10 tidily composed songs. But with its source material too slow to remix and nothing as chart-ready as, say, "Kelly Watch the Stars" to keep it afloat, the sadly slept-on Talkie Walkie quietly slipped past most dance-music nuts unheard.
Their first album since Talkie Walkie, and their fifth full-length overall, Pocket Symphony reunites Air with producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), whose characteristically sparse sound choices match up nicely with the duo's own filmic-pop sensibilities. It also incorporates a handful of ancient Asian instruments, such as koto and shamisen, which Godin apparently picked up under the tutelage of a Japanese master. But don't let the exotic new ornamentations throw you; Pocket Symphony (a title that reads as a wink at the iPod generation and an acknowledgement of the incredible lightness of the music contained within) finds the duo stymieing conventional wisdom by heading even further down the rabbit hole, where they court quietude and chase after spacious holy moments.
This is Talkie Walkie under three more duvets. Meaning: The spiky little pop numbers ("Alpha Beta Gaga") that once broke up Air's regularly scheduled stargazing have been almost entirely erased from the equation, in turn paving the way for Godin and Dunckel to fully indulge their sleepier whims. Since this is hardly unfamiliar territory, when they find those little pockets, they sound beautiful as ever. Opener "Space Maker" sets the pace with a series of wood-block hits, yawning synths, and piano runs; "Left Bank" twists and turns on a gorgeous vocal melody; and "Photograph" plays like a brooding cousin to Talkie Walkie's "Cherry Blossom Girl." Elsewhere, both Jarvis Cocker and The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon offer slightly muted, sleepy-eyed performances, their songs ("One Hell of a Party" and "Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping" respectively) slotting snugly into the album as a whole.
But it's a fine line between light as air and barely there, and Godin and Dunckel occasionally wander over the median. Tracks like "Mayfair Song" and "Redhead Girl" are so awash in watery notes and empty spaces they practically evaporate upon contact, while a couple of others pleasantly waft by without much drama or weight. There are ultimately too many beautiful moments here not to recommend it, but, unless they repeat themselves with ever-subtler variations on a theme, there's not much more Air can do with this particular formula. The good news is that you're probably not going to find a better soundtrack with which to ride out the last days of seasonal-affective purgatory.