Album Review: “Random Access Memories” — Daft Punk
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Anyone in the field of public relations should have spent the last few weeks taking fervent notes as Daft Punk unfurled a masterful marketing plan that managed to make a sea of already-hungry Daft Punk fans visibly drool with anticipation over the release of the duo’s fourth proper LP, Random Access Memories. The elaborate process began over two months ago during a Saturday Night Live commercial break with an unannounced reveal of fifteen seconds from their soon-to-be first single, “Get Lucky,” and concluded early this week when Random Access Memories was made available for streaming. The long road to the reveal accumulated a huge amount of interest among casual and obsessive fans alike, building the pre-release hype up higher each time the robots dangled a new musical carrot in front of the world. Now, Daft Punk has lifted the veil and it’s quickly apparent that it was all worth the wait.
The long-brewing album opens with anthem guitar licks and dramatic live drum rolls, two instruments that have been, up until this point, collecting dust in some long-forgotten corner of Daft Punk’s lair, and then curls itself into the disco-groove of “Give Life Back to Music.” This is the first track of an album that quickly reveals itself to be a piece of art that’s a striking departure from anything Daft Punk has done before, yet somehow still bears the unmistakable fingerprint of the French super-duo. Songs like “The Game Of Love” and “Within” channel the slower songs of Daft Punk’s earlier catalog, such as “Something About Us” from Discovery, but much of the inspiration for the rest of Random Access Memories is unashamedly siphoned from the disco and funk of the 1970s and 80s. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homom-Christo utilize all the basic dance music elements (percussive guitar scratches, sixteenth-note hi-hats, bass slapping) that acted as the crucial ingredients during its conception. With present-day electronic dance music now in an ear-shattering arms race, Random Access Memories is a pacifist response to the “muscle-beach” psychology that has stolen dance music from the basement clubs and given it to X-ed out kids at raves. These thirteen songs sway more than they slam, nod more than they jump, and make every note and groove more sensual than the last.
“Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky,” two songs that feature Pharrell, are future dancefloor hits that can get a crowd moving without ever calling upon a single piece of musical equipment manufactured after the Jimmy Carter administration. At other times, the robots shine their blinding limelight on artists like Nile Rodgers (Chic guitarist) and Paul Williams (legendary songwriter behind “We’ve Only Just Begun,” among others) that helped to shape the classic sound that Daft Punk have breathed new life into. The guest list continues on: Julian Casablancas of The Strokes is featured on the aforementioned “Instant Crush” in a song that couples moody New Wave verses alongside a Chicago house chorus. Panda Bear of Animal Collective takes the wheel on “Doin’ It Right” in spectacular fashion, proving that he can navigate the confines of pop music just as well as he can trek his usual environment of manipulated psychedelic samples and uneven time signatures.
“Touch,” the eight-minute epic featuring Paul Williams, is the challenging sci-fi centerpiece of an album that is already full of songs that will potentially alienate the average Daft Punk fan; Paul Williams begins with a lamenting first-person narrative about being disconnected from the world, then quickly dives into a middle section that sounds like Billy Joel, Chic, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joining forces in a brief moment of jazz-disco perfection. The song slips into a dreamy, slowly shifting chorus, echoing, “If love is the answer, you hold,” amid dramatic strings and vintage vocoders before Williams concludes the story alone with somber piano chords.
Daft Punk also doesn’t forget to remind us why their specific brand of electronic music captured our attention in the first place. “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Instant Crush” revel in the classic Daft Punk sound from Homework that happily anesthetized listeners while still incorporating live drumming and instrumentation. The result is a wide variety of new soundscapes that flirt with New Wave and jazz, often within seconds of each other. “Contact,” the closer of the album, is a six-minute electronic crescendo that makes no attempt to be anything except a rave barnburner. It’s Daft Punk’s “oh-by-the-way” demonstration that even though they’re exploring new territory, they can still out-do any laptop DJ with Ableton who thinks they can beat the robots at the game they invented.
Random Access Memories is the most ambitious album Daft Punk has released yet, which will lend itself to some criticism from old fans that will yearn for the sound they’ve come to expect from the duo instead of the long, strange narratives presented here. In truth, an album that would rehash and recycle old sounds that Daft Punk have become known for would be the most un-Daft Punk thing the group could do, especially now that their signature sound has become a mold used by just about everyone they share the EDM genre with. By and large, Random Access Memories will be remembered as not only a massive brick in the always-growing monument to all things Daft Punk, but also as the first domino to fall in the slow collapse of present-day popular dance music. All of the plug-ins and software that were initially meant to elevate the genre have robbed it of its bite and accessibility, and we’re left with every song trying to out-wub the last clusterfuck dubstep remix that topped the charts before it. Now, the only thing for dance music to do is to backtrack until it finds where it made the wrong turn. By creating this inventive interpretation of old tricks, Daft Punk have succeeded in pointing out all of the wrong routes as well as mapping out some of the promising overlooked trails that dance music has forgotten about, and thank the Almighty Robots for that.