A Belated Discussion of Random Access Memories

Posted by on May 31, 2013

daft punk

By now, you’ve already listened to Daft Punk’s fourth album in full. You may have streamed it on iTunes, or downloaded the rip when it leaked (even though ain’t nobody got time for 192 kbps…), or perhaps you waited patiently and saved your first listen for the official, high quality, purchasable version. Your opinion of the album is probably already cemented.

But that won’t stop me from trying to change it.

Before we dive in, I have to note that most of the reviews I’ve read so far have spent a lot of time fretting over the fact that This Album Simply Doesn’t Sound Anything Like Daft Punk. I find that problematic on several levels. For starters, what the hell does Daft Punk sound like? Since 1997, they have put out three full length studio albums (Random Access Memories is the fourth) and the soundtrack to a feature film. All of these efforts are fascinating in their own right but, ultimately, more different than they are alike. Does Homework really bear any resemblance to Discovery? How do we compare the dark, obsessively repetitive, almost acid Human After All to something as frothy and bombastic as “One More Time?” And don’t some of those guitar licks (on, say, something like “Voyager”) seem like they’d be right at home on Random Access Memories? Too many people fall victim to equating Daft Punk with Alive 2007. Superb a live cut though it is.

So why should this latest addition to the collection be any exception?

Admittedly, I’m being deliberately hard-nosed here. Of course Daft Punk is characterized by a sound and style that we can all probably agree are distinctly theirs, a sound and style which possess a harder, darker edge than anything on Random Access Memories. Fair enough. Point is, Thomas and Guy have proven time and time again that they have no interest in rehashing ground they’ve already covered.

As we move over into the realm of ground already covered, let’s talk about disco. Disco, after all, is the real progenitor of today’s dance music, and a very prominent component of what we now call French House (aka, nu-disco. Ahem). Daft Punk already toyed heavily with disco on Discovery, so it’s not really out of left field for them to pick up the thread again here. What is Random Access Memories if not a self-referential, mostly-disco album — that pays explicit homage to the glittery, funky, sensual sound of the 1970s? What’s more, it feels like a fitting and almost organic response to all the distortion and paranoia of Human After All. If Human After All transports us to some cold future dystopia where people are slaves to machines, Random Access Memories is all pina coladas on a turquoise beach with the ever-ageless Pharrell. It’s not a scary portrait of the road that lies ahead — it’s a fond and lively reinterpretation of the road we took to get here. Bit of a relief, isn’t it?

Random Access Memories really couldn’t be more of a departure from Human After All, which is why it kind of makes perfect, brilliant sense. The production is lush, multilayered and sparkling — each one of Nile Rodgers’s guitar riffs sounds crisp and warm, as though Daft Punk somehow managed to capture the distinct glow imparted by vinyl during the mixdown. Sure, it’s downtempo and yearning in places — many of these tracks are too languid for today’s hyper-stimulated dance floors — but that’s not a bad thing. It’s the kind of album that grows on you with subsequent listens.

It’s also the kind of album that is perfect for a long hot summer. I personally prefer Daft Punk when they have a little more teeth and weirdness, but so many tracks on Random Access Memories are just begging to be melted into. “Lose Yourself To Dance” and “Get Lucky” are the obvious hits here but let’s not discount “Doin’ it Right” and “Instant Crush” and the funky “Give Life Back to Music.” Yes, there’s a lot of similarity between many of the tracks, but then you get to the techy break in the epic “Giorgio by Moroder” (side note: the spoken part by Mr. Moroder starts to sound very rhythmic and percussive when played at incredibly high volume in a club — a fact you may not notice when casually listening but which is yet another indication that Daft Punk are diabolical geniuses), the exuberant, rock-out builds in “Contact,” and the heady, almost Jethro Tull-esque riffs in “Motherboard.”

Random Access Memories is an album that many who thought they’d love it will hate (or simply won’t get), and many may be pleasantly surprised by. If you were expecting Discovery 2.0, you will be roundly disappointed. It’s amusing that so many outlets are calling it The Biggest EDM Album of the Year because it bears literally no resemblance to the type of music that those three letters have come to represent. For everyone out there lamenting the lack of pioneering, agenda-setting, game-changing newness on Random Access Memories: what’s more subversive than The Biggest EDM Group of our Time putting out an aggressively non-EDM album?

In all, this is one to put on the iPod speakers as you spark a j by the pool. It’s one for intimate July parties and the wind down at the end of the night. Maybe it’s not the Daft Punk we’ve grown accustomed to — but after all, aren’t the best and most enduring artists the ones who continually flip the script on themselves?

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