Sharps & Flats

Air's "Virgin Suicides" soundtrack sparkles with the sublimated passion of teenage occultism.

Published February 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

On Air's superb "Virgin Suicides" soundtrack, the French ambient duo references both Pink Floyd-style '70s stoner epics and glam rock without ever stooping to slavish imitation or coy parody. They've created a score alive with alternating currents of portentous noir atmosphere, sentimentality and playfulness, one that, amazingly, evokes mid-'70s suburbia without ever seeming campy or obviously retro. Tracks like "Bathroom Girl" and "Empty House" remind you of basement-spliff epiphanies and grandiose high school intrigue, and the whole album resonates with the sense of adolescence as an almost mystical world inscrutable to adults.

Directed by Sofia Coppola, the film is based on Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about a group of boys obsessed with five sisters kept cloistered by their fanatically protective mother. For the suburban Gothic material, Air have forgone the spun-sugar disco-lullabies of "Premiers Symptomes" and "Moon Safari" for a more ominous sound.

The wonderfully titled "Cemetery Party," for example, sparkles with the breathless sublimated passion of teenage occultism. Sweet, autumnal elements dance around spooky strains of sound; operatic female voices are buried so low in the mix that they become a kind of transparent layer wafting beneath a melancholy synth and organ melody. The haunting final track, "Suicide Underground," combines a deep, computer-processed voice narrating parts of the "Virgin Suicides" story with funereal organs and dirgey drums.

The album begins with a fairly straightforward pop song that nonetheless sets the tone for what follows. "Playground Love" starts with a menacing pulse before an insinuating male voice croons, "I'm a high school lover, and you're my favorite flavor," and a sad, lazy saxophone comes curling in. "Playground Love" is about rebellious, furtive seduction, and while the song's ultrasuave smoothness implies a hint of wry distance, it's far more romantic than condescending. So is the soaring, ardent rock bursting through the synth textures of "Bathroom Girl," a track that suggests a child contemplating the universe through the prism of David Bowie.

Air are immensely clever at turning narrative into pure music. The images conjured by these instrumental, abstract tracks are mirrored with eerie precision in their titles. On "Dark Messages," sudden flashes of shimmering, bell-like noise erupt over a suspenseful, vaguely circuslike loop. Hearing it immediately reminded me of Ouija board sessions my friends and I used to have to contact a dead classmate. Not how those nights seem to me now -- silly, bathetic and self-deluding -- but how they seemed then, full of giddy mystery and an exquisite kind of sadness. The "Virgin Suicides" is dark music for a dark story, but one that reminds you how rich darkness can seem.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------