Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (2013)

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I know what you’re thinking, “nobody wants to read about this album anymore”. Well, nobody wants to read about half of the albums I write about for this blog and that hasn’t stopped me so far. But you have a point. I have rarely seen the entire world of online music writing and message boards coalesce around a single album the way it did for this one, with thousands of reviews being written overnight; even my Facebook feed was flooded with hot takes about the album. Many of which were negative by the way, calling it boring, even wondering if the group were actively trying to antagonize them. Meanwhile there were publications wondering aloud if Daft Punk had just released the album of the decade, pointing out how every single detail was utterly brilliant, especially all the subtle ones that most listeners wouldn’t catch. Which is exactly why you don’t write record reviews overnight. Now I have accused Daft Punk of not trying very hard in the past, but it’s clear that they pored over every little detail on this one, making this the sort of album you want to give some space, especially given how long it is (over 74 minutes).  RAM is three years old today, so no time like the present.

But even if you divorce it from its time, it’s important to remember the context in which this album was made.  A lot of the hype had to do with the fact that it was Daft Punk’s first album in eight years, though that doesn’t tell the whole story.  That eight-year old album was Human After All, an album so hackneyed and repetitive that when it leaked, half of DP’s fanbase were convinced that they had downloaded a fake.  Truth be told Daft Punk’s mid-00’s resurgence had almost nothing to do with their actual music, but rather some combination of Kanye, LCD Soundsystem, Justice, Skrillex, and those cool robot suits.  And of course their 2007 tour, routinely hailed as the greatest thing ever, even managing to lay Human After All to rest with some dignity.  Point is that this act that none too many took all that seriously were suddenly looking like harbingers, and music sites like Pitchfork, which used to shit on this band routinely, were covering the Tron: Legacy soundtrack like it was the most anticipated release of the year (their eventual score: 5.5, which is generous).

So Daft Punk had to make some kind of statement, as they often do, knowing that the world was listening.  After spending many years sampling and appropriating their favorite disco and funk records, they finally decided to create their own.  Random Access Memories does everything the hard way, from the extensive guest list, to the deliberate, slowly unfolding arrangements, to the immaculate production, to the fact that they apparently commissioned orchestral parts for every single song (which they later tossed 90% of).  No drum machines, no samples they didn’t record themselves, and if you want Chic-style guitar, you’d better get Nile Rodgers himself.  Of course, that is the other story of Random Access Memories: the collaborators, ranging from old luminaries who haven’t been very busy lately (Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams) to relatively newer acts like Pharrell, Panda Bear and Julian Casablancas.

The Moroder collaboration is really the key to this record – at 9 minutes, it’s the longest track, whereupon Moroder recounts his life story over a shimmying disco rhythm.  He talks about a click track and one appears; he recounts how there were no preconceptions of how to make music in his time, and an orchestra suddenly takes over.  Through it all the composition slowly evolves; the beat shifts, the microphones change, the rhythm morphs from disco to a house beat.  It is, almost literally, a straight line from Moroder’s day to the present, representing what this album is all about.

Still, 90% of the focus here is on replicating the past rather than offer a vision of where the future may go, though the fact that “Get Lucky” became 2013’s official Song of the Summer says a lot about it.  Outside of the “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger”-like breakdown in the middle (the best section of the entire album?), it’s a total throwback, as is most of this album.  There are plenty of vocoders – it’s Daft Punk after all – but otherwise there’s little to connect this to anything dance music has been doing in the last 30 years, other than the fact that dance music has always borrowed so liberally from funk and disco.  Plus the world was still reeling from the death of Michael Jackson so it wasn’t all that uncommon to hear this kind of music in clubs or on the radio anymore.

The thing that stands out about Random Access Memories isn’t that it just borrows from Chic or the Jonzun Crew or whatever, but rather there are big Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan influences as well, and there aren’t a whole lot of groups trying to sound like them right now.  It is remarkably contemplative and pensive for a Daft Punk album, full of pining vocals and jazzy keyboard solos.  That’s kind of cool actually, though I wish they hadn’t stacked so many robo-ballads like “Game of Love”, “Within”, and “Instant Crush” near the front of the album.  No, the problem is that the BPMs are frustratingly slow on the songs that are meant to make you dance – would-be floor-fillers like “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Doin’ it Right” somehow feel lifeless despite their hookiness.  Perhaps the issue is just the length – both Pharrell songs are killer singles that for some reason get extended out to six minutes, as though they just hit the repeat button halfway through.

Length, as you might imagine, is an issue with the album as a whole, especially since there ain’t a single real banger on here, and the only cathartic moment occurs at the very end with “Contact”, exactly the sort of thing this album could’ve used more of.  Instead, the centerpiece is “Touch”, the Paul Williams song, which features a dramatic intro, disco horns, a full orchestra and choir, and a sentimental ending so overblown that it belongs on Broadway.  It’s easy to say that Daft Punk bit off more than they can chew here, but no, they can actually pull this off – there’s a reason this album cost so much money to make.  And you can hear that everywhere, as the entire thing sounds awesome, living in its own little super-hi-fi world, making instrumentals like “Motherboard” really jump out of the speakers.

So yes, color me impressed, but what’s it all add up to?  I listened to this five or six times when it was released, and of course the singles were everywhere, but since then I’ve never really been tempted to pull it out again.  Look, I dig the concept, and have a lot of respect for Daft Punk for doing this, since there are pretty much zero other groups with the history, the influence, and (most importantly) the cash to do this in a credible fashion.  I’m just not hooked in by it, because the excitement just ain’t there, but hey, I still enjoyed listening to it a few times this week, and I can say that this album really does hold up.  As it was meant to.  It could even be their best studio disc – I like Discovery a lot but can’t help but stop paying attention after track 5; whereas here the bag of tricks is so much deeper, so there’s plenty to go for once you’re sick of the singles.

Only question now is where Daft Punk go from here – I have no idea how these songs fit into their live set, and I think they’ve painted themselves into a corner somewhat.  Maybe the next record is where it all truly comes together; guess we’ll find out in 2020.

 

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