Every sentient being in the cosmos has been ripping fistfuls of hair, feathers, fur, scales, tentacles, and metal protuberances from his or her or its body in anticipation of the new Daft Punk album Random Access Memories. After teasing us with snippets of guitar licks and hagiographic videos from their luminary collaborators, the robots have finally landed on Earth to present their stunning magnum opus, a tribute to the very un-punk 1970s: disco and L.A. soft rock, in particular, and lavish studio craftsmanship, in general. Daft Punk’s newfound analog love is sure to confound a portion of their fans. Before their detractors reach apoplexy, I’d like to gently remind them of the beating Discovery took upon its release. After all, Daft Punk’s singular purpose has always been to deliver unadulterated pleasure with every synthesized note and high-hat tap, however fashionable or passé the genre.
The French duo’s fourth studio release marks the culmination of an unprecedented about-face in critical and popular opinion. Daft Punk’s nadir, the 2005 LP Human After All, didn’t lack for good songs, but its hurried execution (it was recorded in six weeks) begat a monotonous and half-baked album. Consequently scorned, when it wasn’t ignored outright, Human After All was redeemed when seven of its ten songs were put in context next to beloved Homework and Discovery tracks during Daft Punk’s legendary 2006-07 live shows. As a comeback, that tour and its stellar sonic document Alive 2007, was practically messianic. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo became unstoppable heroes to writhing festival crowds and the artists now at the forefront of EDM.
Random Access Memories was meticulously constructed over the course of two-and-a-half years, at first in tandem with their work on the score for Tron: Legacy (which makes a cameo appearance on the bombastic closing track “Contact”). As Bangalter and de Homem-Christo handpicked their influences and collaborators for the record, the Venn diagram overlapped on two: Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers. Moroder casts a long shadow over Random Access Memories, without supplying a note of music, particularly on its slower tracks (“The Game of Love” and “Beyond”), which recall his 80s soundtrack work. “Giorgio by Moroder” is both a tribute to, and a gift from, the robots’ forebear, who delivers the song’s spoken-word genesis of disco. Rodgers’ unmistakable guitar technique is perhaps Random Access Memories’ greatest coup. Though he’s only featured on a handful of these songs, Rodgers’ fretwork provides the wide-ranging album with a sense of continuity.
Much has been said and written about the intense planning and studio work that went into Random Access Memories, particularly on the fascinating series of collaborator videos the duo released in the run up to the album. For example, you don’t have to know that “Within” functions as a bridge between the A minor key of the songs that precede it and the B-flat minor of those that follow to appreciate Chilly Gonzales’ lovely piano work, but that behind-the-scenes peek only heightens your appreciation for craft, which in a way is the defining characteristic of the album. Even Moroder seems pleasantly baffled by Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s insane attention to detail and era-specific fidelity on his video, which is saying something. And yet there’s no hint of fussiness on the record: Random Access Memories sounds phenomenal; despite its robotic and futuristic trappings, every second of the album’s 75 minutes radiates with warmth, vitality, and humanity.
Random Access Memories’ most imposing barrier to entry is also its center of gravity, the showstopper “Touch.” A grand suite of prog, Salsoul disco, and Broadway balladry, “Touch” features Paul Williams, a singer-songwriter worthy of admiration even if he were only responsible for “The Rainbow Connection” (talk about joy at its purest and most unfashionable). Williams, now in his 70s, croons about the album’s central themes – human nature, memory, connectedness, identity, and of course, the unstoppable need for pleasure – while the track abruptly shifts from beeping and groaning abstraction, to hoarse solo performance, to piano-and-horn driven dance, until it busts open for a children’s choir and a string section to recapitulate the song’s splendid melody over and over again. Williams’s devastating vocal performance provides “Touch” with a fittingly dramatic finale. The song serves as a litmus test for the listener’s response to the album that surrounds it. Fall for “Touch,” and the robots already have you deep in their sequins-lined tuxedo pockets.
So much of Random Access Memories recaptures the immediate delight of Daft Punk’s first two albums that the early backlash seems all the more perplexing. “Give Life Back to Music” is as much a credo as it is the album’s crashing and funky opening track. The easy mid-tempo groove of “Instant Crush” surrenders to a rapid and memorable chorus. (When taken up in pitch by the vocoder, Julian Casablancas’ usually detached vocal is made surprisingly sweet.) “Fragments of Time” (featuring veteran Daft Punk collaborator Todd Edwards) highlights the duo’s reverence for the Angelino rock of Fleetwood Mac without straying too far from their signature sound. Not so with “Doin’ It Right,” a Tomboy-era Panda Bear song through and through that happens to fit perfectly on a Daft Punk album. (This, of course, is not a complaint.) Pharrell Williams sings on two album standouts: “Lose Yourself to Dance,” a playful vocal tussle between him and the robots, and lead single “Get Lucky,” the epitome of Random Access Memories’ marvelous craftwork and retro reverence.
Random Access Memories is Daft Punk’s back-to-basics record, not despite its excesses, but because of them. Restraint, a quick turnaround, and guitar-driven “authenticity” resulted in Human After All, the duo’s worst album. It took exuberance, painstaking detail, and wide-eyed nostalgia for Daft Punk to create Random Access Memories, their best. [A]
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