May 26, 2013
Album Review: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
The new Daft Punk album has been received in one of two ways:
It’s either been immediately praised by critics and casual listeners alike or completely dismissed by those who either expected something more Daft Punk-ier or were upset that so many people immediately lauded it as the best album ever.
And that’s to be expected from an album that was as closely guarded as a Jobs-era Apple product from a duo of guys as mysterious as a storm.
All this mystery may have done more harm than good for the album, which very well could be the album of the year, if not the decade.
For starters, this is not the album people expected would follow 2005’s Human After All or their enormously successful 2006-2007 tour ornamented with that giant pyramid. The lush orchestration of the Tron soundtrack certainly revealed a band that was willing to stretch and evolve, but even then no one could have expected the smashingly brilliant disco revival/introspective that Thomas Bangalter (the tall robot) and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (the short robot) deliver. They didn’t do it alone; the French duo enlisted help from some unlikely collaborators such as Todd Edwards, Julian Casablancas, Giorgo, Pharrell Williams and Panda Bear.
Random Access Memories is an album that does not make sense on paper. Given the eight-year drought since the band’s last studio album, and the list of collaborators, this album looks odd.
When the album finally leaked online last week (there’s no such thing as a secret on the Internet, after all), the powers that be decided to stream the album on iTunes, both feeding the desire of the curious and ravage fans and dashing hopes of a follow up to Discovery. Pete Paphides is spot on in his analysis of this move; streaming it early on iTunes ensured that millions of people would listen to this lush and grandiose album on cheap tinny laptop speakers. This is like trying to capture the deep rich colors and enormity of the Grand Canyon with a Polaroid camera. The gist is still there, but there’s no way to REALLY get the album in this format. This is tricky, though. RAM isn’t an album that only audiophiles with expensive speaker equipment can enjoy. But since first impressions are so important, this could have shocked some listeners so bad that it may take several subsequent listens before they truly get it.
On the other hand, streaming it for a week before its release on iTunes is a perfect lens with which to view this album.
Music Takes Investment
In the bygone days of yesteryear, music wasn’t always so accessible or so instant. A friend of mine last night told me that he used to drive three hours to Austin to find music he couldn’t get online or in local record shops. This is something completely unheard of in the days of instant downloads and services like Spotify or Pandora, but it represents the kind of investment music fans used to put into their favorite albums. Even though Random Access Memories was readily available on iTunes, you could only listen to it on a PC or the iPad. For those fans that both wanted to listen to this new album on the go but have Wi-Fi only iPads, this meant they could only listen to it in certain spots.
I was one of these fans.
The album was instantly infectious and I simply had to keep listening. I wasn’t going to steal it, so I did something I haven’t had to do in years: I created a hacky rig by using my iPhone as a hotspot and streamed the music to my iPad and connected it to my car’s speakers.
I can’t think of the last time I wanted to listen to a new album so badly that I devised a system of connections and wires just to hear it for quick ten-minute car rides.
Given the amount of critical acclaim this album has received and the amount of unbridled anticipation surrounding its release, it’s daring and yet somewhat safe to say that Random Access Memories is our era’s Sergeant Peppers.
Both albums follow the bands’ decision to stop touring, both albums have been hyped to be something truly great, and both albums are masterpieces in their own rites.
The productions quality of RAM is damn near unparalleled. It’s not a surprise that a band who shrouds themselves in glossy robotic masks or represents themselves with a chrome logo would release something as sparkling as this collection of 12 songs. It walks an incredibly thin line between too produced and immaculately conceived. To put it simply, the album sounds like a million bucks. In an interview with GQ, the band wouldn’t confirm this total when asks, but they certainly didn’t deny it, either.
Putting It All Together
The band started on this album in 2008, writing it as they had done with previous albums, but Bangalter and Homem-Christo said something didn’t feel right. They called in live musicians (and this is important) to play the parts and recreate a bit of that disco magic which had been too quickly dismissed in the 70s.
From the first beats in the album’s opener Give Life Back to Music, loyal fans may feel as if they’re in store for a revisit to the Discovery days, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. The old disco-meets-electronica is there as soon as the vocoder voice kicks in in the first chorus.
But the tracks opener, as Mark Richardson of Pitchfork so rightly put it, is a thesis. It’s a manifesto of sorts, lamenting the human touch that’s been lost in much of today’s over-produced and mass market appeal YouTube hits out there today.
From there, Daft Punk doesn’t necessarily make an argument so much as they turn introspective. The band which once proclaimed themselves as robots (only later to find that they were Human After All) calls back on the influences that made them create the music they love.
The nine-minute-long homage to Giorgo Moroder is a soaring opus complete with plenty of the synthesizers Daft Punk fans of old have grown to love. Even here, however, the band brings us back to that live band feel as a string section bridges the gap between perfectly timed synths and prog-rock drums and bass.
This is an album meant to be listened to as a whole, as a solid album with Touch acting as its fulcrum. Think I Will Follow You Into the Dark on Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans.
Touch is perhaps the most perfect song Daft Punk has ever written, a high wire epic about remembrance and the importance of human connection. In four movements the song touches on looking back on lost loves and searching for the meaning of life before concluding, so succinctly, that If love is the answer, you’re home.
The song starts out with a glitchy and frightening robot voice that sounds like it’s trying to dig its way out of every bit and byte the band has ever manipulated to their artistic whim.
There’s something so fitting and beautiful about a 72-year old Paul Williams singing a song about remembrance and retrospection. Williams sounds strong on this song, but also sounds every bit of his age. The song then moves so fluidly into a musical three-part tribute to styles which have come and gone; a ragtime piano and a New Orleans jazz quartet on top of a thumping disco beat. It’s a transition that shouldn’t work, but Daft Punk somehow pulled it off. From there, the song moves into a beautiful piano ballad complete with a distant choir. Strings and synths rise and fall once more like the ocean’s waves and give into a sort of high-school graduation feel, something which listens as so final and yet forward looking.
The album’s big single, Get Lucky follows, and suffice to say, it’s a fantastic track. It’s got all the makings of a 70-era disco track, but with a kind of funky, nasty groove that’s almost never been heard.
A Non-concept Concept Album
The “concept album” label is tossed around pretty loosely, especially when it comes to titles of this caliber. Discovery was also considered a concept album. It’s a stretch to give RAM the same label, but it’s certainly an album with something to say.
If Daft Punk once thought of themselves as robots, Random Access Memories is the story of their journey to become human once more. The argument could be made that this is the story Human After All aimed to tell, but it was more a statement of finality than a conclusion.
This Daft Punk album reveals the robots to be something we never thought they could be…personal. They’re not yet willing to shed the masks, but they’re willing to show us that there’s something going on below. Whereas electronic and futuristic beats and riffs were enough to convey their message, they’ve returned to the music that formed them, returning to their roots, returning to the very things that made them feel human in the first place. There are so many layers in this album which make it great. Bangalter and Homem-Christo have always been revered as musicians who truly know how to write a song, who know what it means to create something beautiful with the tools they’re given. The truest test of any songwriter is the ability for other musicians from completely different genres to be able to mold these songs into something else. Almost immediately, folk trio Daughter set out to cover the album’s first hit, Get Lucky. A simple search for “Daft Punk Covers” reveals a wealth of artists so willing to take songs from each of their albums and turn them into their own. Just take a look at this bluegrass cover of Doscovery hit One More Time.
Daft Punk is receiving a lot of attention these days, but it’s more than well deserved. These guys do excellent work and Random Access Memories is but another example of that work. Though it’s as much a retrospective as it is something wholly modern, I believe this album will be revisited for decades to come. You’ve got ten bucks. Do yourself a favor and download it immediately.
Image Credit: Daft Punk / Columbia Records