And just like that, Random Access Memories was there. With characteristically little warning, the full album stream on iTunes went live on Monday, a full eight days before its scheduled physical release. There’s almost nothing to say about the build-up that can capture the extent of the internet hype beyond the fact that people were very, very excited to see what the new Daft Punk album would sound like. You could almost hear the internet quieting down a little on Monday afternoon as people crowded around their computers to listen carefully and American office productivity hit a momentary slump.
The opening bars of “Give Life Back to Music” loudly proclaim Daft Punk’s new sonic approach. Guitars, bass, drums and synths breathe with greater clarity, freed from the overt veneer of processing and compression that has become the group’s signature. From the outset, Thomas and Guy-Man confidently assume a more traditional producers’ role, deftly balancing composition, arrangement, and engineering duties while the heavy instrumental lifting is done by studio musicians. This approach is evident in longer passages that are performed without looping, an immediate sonic departure from their previous work, which relied heavily on sampling. The playing throughout is fantastic, particularly Niles’ Rodgers rhythm guitar work, which coats several tracks like barbeque sauce, and it’s a rare treat to hear such noticeably human virtuosity in a genre that is defined by programmed intervals and tightly controlled midi velocities.
Near the end of “Give Life Back to Music,” the sound of a crowded café, one of the album’s early motifs, appears for the first time, subtly cultivating a communal atmosphere before quickly disappearing as the song trails out into “Game of Love,” a mournful song about loss. This push and pull between communal peaks and alienated valleys has become something of a thematic signature for Daft Punk, who have gotten so good at subtly contrasting these emotional states that the tension is almost always there subliminally. “Touch,” a mid-album highlight, is a multi-movement suite that features heartbreaking vocals from 70’s icon Paul Williams, full orchestral accompaniment, and extended choral movement toward the end that is especially affecting.
Daft Punk turned “Giorgio by Moroder” – their collaboration with Italian disco legend Giorgio Moroder – into a massive self-aware geek-out. It’s easy to feel Daft Punk’s excitement over the collaboration as they give Moroder’s personality ample space to shine: the song begins with a few minutes of Moroder telling his backstory and what made him decide to get into music, and in one of the album’s most satisfying moments, the song’s main synth line drops right after he formally introduces himself to the listener. Studio musicians tease tension out of the melody, culminating in several release points of cinematic intensity and providing us with our first real exposure to the rich combination of electronic, electric, and acoustic instruments around which Daft Punk have built the album. “Motherboard” is another compelling showcase for instrumental proficiency that doesn’t seem to sacrifice the Daft Punk signature, and “Fragments of Time” ends in a wash of tambourines and vocoders in an intensely beautiful moment where the digital and analogue interface in an incredible way.
The album is not without its flaws: “Get Lucky” is still one of my least favorite songs here, and Pharrell’s contributions to the first two verses still feel like an extended build-up for the aural payoff of the talkbox break. The longer album version of the song draws out the intro and the repeating bridge before the talkbox (“we’re up all night to get lucky”) to the point where the latter feels nearly interminable. The drums come back in before the break, lessening the impact of the same moment in the Radio Edit. It’s the album’s big single, sure, but it still feels trite somehow in the context of a larger whole. As one of the album’s big-name features, it doesn’t quite match the tasteful melodic grace of Julian Casablancas’ “Instant Crush” or the regnant danceability of Panda Bear’s “Doin’ It Right,” both of which do a better job of providing levity amid the album’s more cerebral instrumental passages.
A lot is going to be said about how Random Access Memories isn’t the dance album everyone expected from Daft Punk, but it will be interesting to see what happens to this material in today’s electronic music climate. For starters, every song on the album is going to get the shit remixed out of it; just about every dance producer’s attention has been fixed in Daft Punk’s direction for nearly two decades, and the relative lack of electronic embellishment is going to provide a great instrumental foundation for future reworks. It’s possible that Daft Punk know better than you do what you need: where you thought you wanted a house album, you might really have wanted a disco album. You thought the timbral lushness you sought would be provided by a multitude of synthesizers that respected each other’s EQ spectrum territory when you really wanted to be surprised by sudden bursts of orchestral accompaniment.
As a whole, Random Access Memories gives the listener an appreciation for just how organic and human Daft Punk’s approach has always been, despite a career-long commitment to technology and automation. Perhaps it’s all been an elaborate ruse: robot heads masking a couple of soft-hearted grown-ass men, sappy melodies processed into submission, inhuman voices singing very human sentiments, etc. I like to think Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have simply been waiting for the world to quiet down a little on its own before they induced a little togetherness.
(Images courtesy of imgur.com, pnutbutterjams.com)