Oh, my, Daft Punk. You and your crazy ways.
It’s been about eight years since the prolific French duo known as Daft Punk has released anything that can be called a proper ‘album’. Back in 2010 the duo produced a fitting yet unfairly underappreciated soundtrack for the reboot/sequel of Disney’s Tron franchise, a soundtrack that met tragically sub-par reviews, mostly due to its lack of exhibited cohesion within the legendary pair’s otherwise pungent and remarkable catalog. Memorably, the be-all-end-all indie music blog Pitchfork harshly discredited the effort as anything that resembled an actual Daft Punk album, which is mildly agreeable, though terribly unfair, as their review feasted upon the misguided notion that the soundtrack boasted a palpable impossibility to satisfy the listener (especially out of context).
I rarely agree with Pitchfork—I find them incredibly shallow and supremely critical. Pitchfork seems to feed on any and all veritable shortcomings exhibited amongst burgeoning musical acts, destroying any notions of optimism or hope in the process; unless of course the undoubtedly taut, weathered (and alleged) heartstrings of one of their writers are inexplicably plucked by some “new” set of indie-darlings, resonating momentarily with some new, exciting sound. Yet tragically, it is only moments before such an echo fades to a whimpering murmur, cruelly lost amongst the whispers of the ghosts of forgotten melodies, as they are systematically replaced with the kinds of unflattering, regurgitated sounds that their ignorantly fickle reviewers seamlessly cycle through day after day, week after week, in search of some sort of tangible significance they will never understand. I used to want to work for them, but everything they post—aside from their regular, run-of-the-mill news stories and tour announcements—is so drenched in disdain and elitism that it sickens me. So imagine my shock when they gave Random Access Memories their coveted “Best New Music” adornment, especially since they have never given it to ANY OTHER DAFT PUNK ALBUM. Weird.
Before I get into the actual review, there are a few things I feel I should make clear. For those who have read my reviews (anybody? Hello…?), it’s probably not really a surprise that I don’t do the whole alphanumeric grading system (I hate assuming that I know more than an artist or band to such a degree that I feel it’s OK to ‘grade’ one’s artistic vision—who the fuck am I to say how ‘good’ someone’s creative output is?). I find it incredibly trivial and ultimately unfair to everyone involved to do such a thing. It’s unfair to the artist/band, the reader, the editor, even me, the writer. I’m a sucker for non-violent communication (thank my crunchy-ass college for that), so even if there is something about an album I don’t like, I never say “it sucks” or “it’s sub-par” or even “it lacks ________”. It’s my philosophy that people need to make their own decisions. I’m not here to tell you that “you need listen to this album,” or that “this album will change your life,” or any of that crap; I just want to give some insight, because honestly, that’s what I’m good at. I’m no good at telling whether something is ‘bad’ or ‘good’, because that’s different for everyone, and I am in no position to presume how anyone is going to feel about this album. There’s just no way.
The rise of the Internet in recent years—paired with the exponential amount of diversity and breadth in regards to new music—has effectively vaporized the magic involved in waiting for a new album to drop. So many people these days have bitTorrent clients and links to leaks of unreleased albums that any sort of actual marketing campaign in regards to modern music is almost unheard of. Yet Daft Punk—being terribly nostalgic, resourceful, and enigmatic (duh)—brought excitement back to anticipation. In doing so, they tortured their devoted listeners for months upon months, yet at long last, their fourth album is finally upon us.
And man, is it wacky.
I first heard Random Access Memories last Monday (May 13th, the day it was leaked onto the internet and started streaming on iTunes). I was actually at the movies when it was released online for the first time, and as someone who had been following Daft Punk’s tortuous marketing campaign, I couldn’t help appreciating the subtle irony that the album I had been waiting for—for five years, no less—became available for listening the ONE TIME I went to the movies since 2012. I had left the theater and gone to my favorite neighborhood bar for a hard cider, and within thirty seconds of me turning on my cell phone, I had 2838640202 messages from family, friends, and devoted colleagues freaking out that the album that I had been waiting for had finally leaked.
I’m not one that is a stranger to torrents, or early leaks, or promo copies of ANY album. I knew this Daft Punk album was going to leak well before it was actually released (though I must say, I was pretty impressed that it didn’t leak much earlier. Kudos to Columbia Records). My initial plan in regards to hearing the album was to take a purist approach: I pre-ordered the vinyl of the album back in April (I’m a bit of a vinyl junky, thanks in most part to my ex), and my plan was to refrain from listening to the album until I received the vinyl in the mail. Naturally, as soon as the album became available online, I just couldn’t wait any longer, and so I said, “Fuck it” and listened to the stream as soon as I got home that Monday evening.
I was about halfway through my first listen when I decided to read Rolling Stone’s review of the album. For some reason I get Rolling Stone in the mail (probably because of some festival ticket I bought), yet it’s not very often that I read most of the magazine. Curiously, I am always intrigued by their music reviews (they gave Vampire Weekend’s third album 4.5/5 stars, and I must agree it’s a masterpiece), and it’s rare that my views are even slightly parallel with theirs (I find RS to be way too political most of the time). Though, refreshingly, their review of RAM was SPOT. ON.
I don’t have the review in front of me, but I remember the critic talking about the numerous “what the fuck” moments they experienced upon their first listen of the album. As someone who was listening to RAM for the first time, I don’t think I could have found a more concise, coherent way of verbalizing that feeling. Daft Punk veterans like myself (i.e., those who are familiar with their previous three studio albums, or you know, their basic overall style) didn’t really know what to do with this album at first. The Daft Punk I am used to is all about house, and electro, and quaking percussion matched with effortless sampling and that kind of “thumpa-thumpa” they made so famous. That is virtually nowhere on this album. Just so you know.
This album—probably because of their plethora of noteworthy collaborations—is in no way as linear as say, Homework or Discovery. Homework—the duo’s incredible full-length debut, speaks volumes to the time period it was released within: the late 90s. In the late 90s, basically every genre of popular music was going through some sort of transition. Grunge was adapting to the more melodic qualities of the greater genre of alternative rock. Pop was becoming more group-centric. Trip-hop was dissolving as its own genre, but its driving forces were being used as catalysts in evolving forms of R&B, Hip-hop, and ambient electronica. Daft Punk’s Homework became a sort of beacon, offering a sense of direction and purpose through the murky, choppy waters personifying the state of late 90s electronica, aiding the progression of major electronic outfits (The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Orbital, The Avalanches), not only through inviting stylistic influence, but also through an incontrovertible sense of curiosity. Even at such a young age, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo saw the opportunity for optimism, and snatched it up quickly, veritably dictating the future of electronic music for years, nay, decades to come.
Their second and third albums—Discovery and Human After All, respectively—also command a similar sense of fortitude and courage. 2001’s Discovery is a much more accessible, almost jubilant album, as if the name of the album itself inspires pride and self-awareness, and 2005’s Human After All—a more experimental approach—toys with social roles and the inherent dichotomies that occur between those who operate on different levels in regards to ideology, philosophy, and spirituality, begging to answer the age-old question, “What does it mean to be human?”
Now, here we are, eight years after the release of Human After All, and Daft Punk have finally released their fourth album. Thomas and Guy-Manuel have shed their leather jackets and biker personae, and in return have donned chic ensembles compiled by Yves St. Laurent under force-field-like jackets dripping with battalions of sequins. And if you think it’s only their clothes that have changed, you’re in for a big surprise.
I’m going to be honest with you. The first time I heard Random Access Memories, I was filled with an unshakable notion of disillusionment and overall bewilderment. As the album progressed from song to song, I found myself experiencing an unsettling sort of dissonance. This wasn’t the Daft Punk that I fell in love with in high school. Where was the house music? Where were the sharp backbeats? Where was the thumping bass masked by trampling, broken English spoken breezily through DP’s signature Vocoder?
The answer is simple: it’s not there. And here’s why:
Daft Punk used to celebrate the future. Their first three albums (the first two, especially; Human After All is kind of an anomaly) heralded the golden, pre-modern EDM age of electronica…an age that saw the rise of Röyksopp, and CSS, and Hot Chip, and Cut Copy. With Random Access Memories, however, they are not so much celebrating the future, as much as their past. I don’t mean that in the sense of a eulogy; they are bringing the past into the present.
I feel like a lot of people were disappointed with this album…if only at first. I’m the first to admit that there were moments during my first listen when I literally sat back and said out loud to myself, “What is HAPPENING?” (especially during that song “Touch” featuring Paul Williams; I’m still not really sure how I feel about that one yet). Yet, the most fantastic thing about that first listen was this: even though I had those moments when I was utterly confused as to what the fuck it was that I was actually listening to, there came at least one moment in each song when I KNEW I was listening to Daft Punk. sometimes it took a while to really grasp that signature groove, or edge, or whatever you want to call it, but it was always there.
Despite Daft Punk’s inevitable, fantastic style that has the ineffable ability to make any song great, the collaborations on the album are easily the strongest points. Pharrell Williams’ velvety vocals on “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky”, matched with effortlessly fluid funk guitar provided by Nile Rodgers (who is also featured on the album’s first track “Give Life Back to Music”) demonstrate transcendent cooperation between the Robots’ fabulous eccentricity as producers and the more traditional stylings of Pharrell and Mr. Rodgers.
Perhaps the best of the album’s songs feature more melodic vocal treatments, especially “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas (of The Strokes) singing a tampered, melancholy soliloquy over playfully electronic instrumentation, as well as “Doin’ It Right”—the song featuring Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear from Animal Collective)—in which Lennox offers his idiosyncratically harmonious dream-like vocals that drift breezily amongst the frosty foundational vocal refrain that repeats hazily throughout the entire piece. The more instrumental collaborations, however—featuring electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder (on “Giorgio by Moroder”) and the reclusive DJ Falcon (on the album’s last, thundering prog-tinged track “Contact”)—easily take the cake as the most inventive alliances.
After teasing us with their fantastic single “Get Lucky”, a somewhat flimsy precedent was set. “Get Lucky”—in conjunction with the enigmatic, elusive nature exhibited within the esoteric YouTube collaborators series—created somewhat of an unfair standard in regards to the actual album. An album that boasts such powerhouse collaborative efforts with such an intimidating outfit as Daft Punk is not something that many listeners have a chance to scoff at before realizing how vital such a piece is. Though so many found it so easy to scoff at.
I’m going to go ahead and pigeonhole these new EDM-crazed kids out there. Granted, I am nowhere near an electronic music expert (talk to my friends Joe, Jayme, or Jeremy about that shit; I know a lot of good stuff but I am nowhere near as well versed as they are…they know their shit), but I know enough to realize that electronic music these days has taken a bit of a turn for the worst. Even DJs that I used to respect have jumped the proverbial shark, dunking their once inventive and captivating compositions into the murky shame that is modern “dubstep.” I like to compare the mess that is most modern popular electronic music (or “EDM”) to a single glass of milk in a room full of people with different kinds of store-bought cookies. Everyone wants to dunk their bland, dry, Chips Ahoy! or Keebler Rainbow Chip or Famous Amos cookies into this one, singular glass of milk, and in doing so the milk turns some awful beige/brown color, and of course there are the couple stoners in the room that think shit like, “Whoa! Fuckin’ Keebler/Chips Ahoy/Famous Amos flavored milk! This shit’s the fuckin’ bomb!” And actually, it’s just sugary, semi-chocolate milk with a bunch of soggy-ass crumbs at the bottom, and it is just gross. That’s what a lot of EDM seems to be these days…some haphazard, caddywhompus combination of nasty, generic “flavors” of music drunkenly suspended in some sort of broad, neutral solution. Some of us just want to sit in the corner and eat our Thin Mints and Milano cookies in the corner, without having some douchebag trying to make some kind of epic “cookie sandwich” with our good, high-quality cookies. And our cookies ain’t getting’ nowhere near that fuckin’ milk.
And that’s what Random Access Memories is. It’s like a really good batch of homemade cookies you haven’t had in like, a really, really long time. They’re made from one of your favorite recipes, but there were a few extra ingredients added here and there to make them taste just…really fucking good. It’s like Giorgio Moroder is some sort of buttercream frosting, or Julian Casablancas is a pinch of nutmeg, or Panda Bear is a dash of orange zest tossed into the batter at the last minute. It’s just that little bit of extra flavor that makes this album extraordinary.
Random Access Memories is one of those albums that people are going to be talking about for years and years to come…in the same way people talk about Massive Attack’s Mezzanine or Radiohead’s Kid A. Radiohead is a band that is fortunate to have someone like Thom Yorke at the helm, guiding the quintet into new territory with unprecedented brilliance within relatively short periods of time between each album (just think about the transition between The Bends and OK Computer; between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows). Not everyone can be Thom Yorke, not even Thomas Bangalter or Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. Though where Thom excels in speed, cohesion, and spontaneity, Thomas and Guy-Manuel transcend with skills in patience, understanding, and an undying empathy for nostalgia.
We live in an age in which everyone is constantly racing to reinvent themselves. I’m not just talking about musicians; I’m talking about everybody. We are on the brink of some sort of neo-Renaissance (one that is tech-based), and as we inevitably descend into this sort of maddening reliance on constant superficial connection, those few elements that distinguish humanity from animal civilization—namely the arts, humanities, social sciences—simmer silently on the possibly-unlit back burners. People forget how important music is. They forget that they constantly live their lives amongst it. We all sing in the shower, and hum while we pee, and listen to the birds sing outside or bedroom window. There are those who say that music predates any sort of human language. Daft Punk isn’t starting any sort of revolution with this album; they’re just trying to open our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts. The first song on RAM pleads to ‘put the life back in music,’ which, undoubtedly, Daft Punk has achieved with this album. But more importantly, they want us to put music back in our lives. It’s hard to disconnect from a world that is so obsessed with invisible, intangible connections. But perhaps it’s time to take a step back, to gather with friends, or family, and just put on a record and talk. Music is—and always should be—an arena for discussion. And who knows, maybe that’s really what Thomas and Guy-Manuel intended with this album. Maybe they just wanted people to sit down and say, “What the fuck are these guys thinking?” I kind of doubt it, but it’s a nice thought. I like to think that they are that insightful.
Either way, we’re lucky to have these two in our lives, and to live in a time when so much great music is happening. Whatever the message is, the music moves us, it teaches us, it beckons us forward through life and earnestly reminds us of our past. But best of all, it keeps us up ‘til the sun, it keeps us up for good fun, and we are so, so lucky.