Album Review: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

[Daft Life / Columbia; 2013]

Daft Punk make music about music. There seems to be two facets to the robots’ persona. The first is the popologist side. This is the side responsible for Discovery–a record that channeled the previous twenty-five years of glitzy pop music, trudging across electro, disco, r&b, rock, and filtered it through Daft Punk’s vision of sample-heavy French house bombast. The other side is the performance. Daft Punk are, and will forever be, DJs at heart, and there’s a reason Alive 2007 is, in this critic’s humble opinion, still their most meaningful and unified statement–even without the visual spectacle. That crowd noise is key. It was an album about their own music, and an almost literal deconstruction of that first facet of their persona.

On the most basic level, nothing has changed on Random Access Memories, the duo’s first proper studio LP since 2006’s middling Human After All. The duo’s penchant for gaudy flash, minimal songwriting, music nerdery, and, well, bombast is still all there–they’re just not making sample-based music anymore. And in a lot ways–some obvious, some not–that makes all the difference.

The duo have something more ambitious and specific in mind, culling sounds from Los Angeles circa 1979, an era of music they’ve always shown an affinity for. Daft Punk have specifically talked about how they wanted to do what they’ve always done, but with humans. And as a lot of the press leading up to Random Access Memories has made clear, the album is very much a result of collaboration. The Creator’s Project even did a beautifully rendered Youtube series interviewing each of the collaborators about their contribution to the record. For better or worse, RAM wants to be the sum of people working on music together (the way folks used to). And appropriate to the sound Daft Punk wanted to pay tribute to, they even got era-titans Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams, and Nile Rodgers on the roster. From the outset, it looked as if RAM was meant to be a disco nerd opus that only Daft Punk could deliver.

But the context surrounding RAM almost outshines the album itself, and as a lot of the lip service paid to RAM has made clear, it’s influenced the record’s creation as well. For anyone with even the slightest interest in music outside of the mainstream, a lot of the “robots bringing soul back to music” rhetoric could be a little cringe-worthy, to say the least. Even in the mainstream there’s still music with a sense of the past and genuine, earned emotion. But on a certain level, it makes sense. That second facet of Daft Punk I mentioned is probably partially responsible for what “EDM” is–a brand of music that seems more a product of corporate sponsorship than of any kind of musical reverence.

Daft Punk are arguably the biggest electronic dance act in the world that still has any kind of mainstream cultural stock and they most certainly have a platform from which to make an overt statement about music. And it will absolutely be heard. But with RAM they do it by committing cool-conscious suicide. So in one sense, Random Access Memories is the most absurdly subversive thing ever. There’s a song with disco legend Giorgio Moroder talking about synthesizers and click tracks. Uh, what? If you can’t at least appreciate the shameless gall in that, then I don’t know what.

So is RAM a simple reminder? Is it a lesson? Is it Daft Punk “going back to go forward?” Maybe. The record is called “Random Access Memories” after all. But so what? None of this automatically means RAM is a “great” record. Just an interesting one. The good news is that there’s a lot to like about Random Access Memories.

Opening track “Give Life Back To Music” is the record’s obvious mission statement, a steamy two-note synth melody and Nile Rodgers’ chopstick guitar playing circling around a vocodered chant of the titular line. Rodgers’ guitar is the hook here and it’s kind of a revelation just how earworm-y it actually is. The track makes it apparent Daft Punk have a clear handle on the sound they’re shooting for, and even that they can add something of their own to it, but it’s not surprising the rest of the album sees a couple tracks (“The Game of Love,” “Within,” “Beyond”) that can feel like an exercise in influences (albeit aesthetically pleasing ones).

There’s also tracks that aim a little too high and collapse under their own weight. “Giorgio by Moroder” espouses the potential music has once you free your mind of preconceptions, but it’s also a reminder that maybe turntable scratching and orchestral strings in the same song should have more of a purpose than both just being there. It’s also kind of telling that Giorgio Moroder’s only contribution to the whole album, after all the hype, is to talk a little.

RAM is at its best when it feels like Daft Punk is collaborating. “Instant Crush,” featuring The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, is an early standout with its beautifully icy chorus and staccato synth hook. Todd Edwards appears on the absolutely immaculate “Fragments of Time,” with its side chained steel guitars and neon-rocketships-in-flight instrumental section. Then there’s the gleefully baffling Panda Bear spot, “Doin’ It Right,” which feels like a perfect split between both artists’ styles with the rhythmic focus, vocoder backing, and Noah Lennox’s unmistakable vocal delivery.

The three-song centerpiece suite of “Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Touch,” and “Get Lucky” is where everything finally feels fully realized and it almost pulls the whole album together on its own. Both “Lose Yourself To Dance” and “Get Lucky” feature Pharrell and Nile Rodgers and they’re evidence enough that a whole album with these guys could work wonders. The former is a sensuous, bodily disco funk ode to the dance floor with Pharrell’s falsetto just swimming through a pool of sweaty guitar and bass plucks. And “Get Lucky” is the album’s single, forcibly immediate pop song.

“Touch” is a collaboration with legendary songwriter Paul Williams, and it’s RAM’s one truly transcendent moment. It’s also the most complex and brazen track by a few light-years as well. It opens with some modular synth noodling before Williams’ tender vocal comes in, crescendoing into a driving, wah-drenched disco number complete with trumpet, oboe, and vaudevillian piano. It then halts (twice) and moves into a rising, floating-through-space chorus, which is finally joined by blissful strings and a marching kick drum like some cosmic, ascending-to-heaven, love as redemption koan. It’s fantastic.

Ultimately, Random Access Memories wants to be a love letter to an era of music–the sounds and techniques, the passion and collaboration. It’s an attempt to re-discover the humanity and the individuals that used to make up pop music. And it mostly succeeds. You can feel the duo’s reverence and care on every track, even when there is a misstep, and the album is very dependent on the names that bring it to life. RAM can oftentimes feel scattered, too ambitious, or too similar to the era it’s working from, but, in the end, it’s an album held together by that palpable reverence.