“The first time I heard them, I saw the ‘Around the World’ video. I had sort of just gotten wind of electronic music and was hearing a lot of stuff that I’d never heard before.”
– Panda Bear
A CD-R in a flimsy black jewel case, only identifiable by a single word written in black Sharpie on the front of the disc: “Discovery.” My best friend’s older brother had burned a copy of the album and given it to him, and now it was being passed along to me. It was middle school, probably late 6th or early 7th grade, right at that vital exploratory moment when my musical inclinations were first starting to take root. This is how I was introduced to the music of Daft Punk.
Discovery was one of Those Albums for me, perhaps even The Album of my first few years of active, engaged listenership. It was my introduction to electronic music, a world of genres and styles that I had not even begun to explore before hearing Daft Punk. Indeed, Discovery — and to a lesser extent Homework, which I also listened to shortly thereafter — led me to discover much of the music that I now most cherish. Being given that CD-R was therefore an absolutely crucial moment in my personal musical development, and I’m sure that many other listeners now approaching Random Access Memories have similarly intimate and storied relationships with the music of the French duo.
“It’s time to have something new in the dance world. I love disco or dance anyway, but this is like a step forward. They had to do something which is different — still dance, still electronic, but give it that human touch back.”
– Giorgio Moroder
Random Access Memories is Daft Punk’s first album since 2005’s Human After All. While this most recent record and its predecessor are drastically different aesthetically, they both, at least on some level, engage in a commentary on music production itself. Human After All, in this writer’s opinion, critiques the vacuity of certain strands of popular music through its mechanistic, repetitious style (as well as, I might add, through its short, seemingly disengaged process of creation — that album was written in mere weeks, while this most recent effort was crafted over the course of years).
Random Access Memories similarly comments on recent trends in pop and electronic music, namely the rise of completely computer-based, inorganic methods of production (perhaps manifested most prominently in EDM — a style that Daft Punk has openly criticized — but also apparent, I might argue, in more indie-based, laptop-loving movements such as the blogospherical phenomenon that was “chillwave”). With this album, Daft Punk has thus attempted to offer an alternative to the computerized pestilence that they perceive as plaguing popular music.
Indeed, the “Collaborators” videos — a series of interviews with several of the album’s many contributors — extol Random Access Memories as a dramatic, radical step away from the shallowness of certain branches of current electronic music, building the album up to be some sort of paradigm-shifting masterpiece (the video series itself was a fascinating exercise in the curation of hype that deserves its own full-length analysis). And from the very start of the album, Daft Punk makes this goal achingly obvious; the first song is, after all, titled “Give Life Back to Music.”
The central question to consider in a critique of Random Access Memories, then, is the following: to what extent does the album achieve its goal of offering an alternative to the entirely computer-based production that pervades contemporary pop and electronic music? To answer this, we must examine the specific details of the music at hand.
“There’s an elegance and a grace to what they’ve created here, I think… This is a chance to do what every great artist wants to do — to offer their audience a chance to be elevated to a new intensity of emotion.”
– Paul Williams
Random Access Memories begins with perhaps the album’s most consistently satisfying stretch of music: the one-two-three punch of “Give Life Back to Music,” “The Game of Love,” and “Giorgio by Moroder.” Immediately, the level of production is astounding: the drums sound crisp and tangible, every clap and snare hit resonating with impressive clarity; Nile Rodgers’ syncopated guitar riffing (which features prominently in “The Game of Love”) sits nicely in the mix alongside electric bass and warm, atmospheric keyboards; and, of course, the timbre of the vocoded, robotic voices that have now become the band’s trademark sounds painstakingly realized.
Whereas Daft Punk’s earlier work was built on the appropriation and sampling of decades-old records, here the Robots are attempting to literally create a new, updated version of the music that has inspired them throughout their career. Much to my satisfaction upon hearing these first few songs, in “Give Life Back to Music” and the more melancholic “The Game of Love,” the band is actually initially quite successful in this endeavor, deftly constructing music that is eminently pleasurable for the listener from the templates of the past. In terms of songwriting, these first few tracks aren’t as immediately gripping as anything on, say, Discovery; rather, these compositions are relaxed and understated, opening up only after multiple listens.
The relative subtlety of the first two songs then leads into “Giorgio by Moroder,” one of the most fascinating and unreservedly ambitious experiments on the album. The track begins with an autobiographical, spoken-word introduction by Giorgio Moroder himself, which is musically accompanied by an emulation of the sounds of disco that influenced the legendary producer. From here, the song moves chronologically onward into an exploration of the sonic innovations that Giorgio himself pioneered before finally arriving at a sort of extrapolative, post-Moroder amalgamation of a ridiculous array of influences. If nothing else, this track is responsible for one of the most viscerally thrilling episodes on the entire album: the virtuosic drum, bass, and vinyl-scratching breakdown beginning around the seven-minute mark. Still, the triumphant guitar soloing and affected, sweeping string lines that appear as the song nears its conclusion seem superfluous and distastefully kitschy.
The epic scope of “Giorgio by Moroder” is easily comparable to “Touch,” perhaps the album’s most successful collaboration (this time with composer and songwriter Paul Williams). The track begins with an amorphous introduction that features some rather creepy vocals by Williams before leading into a segment that sounds like a bizarre sort of disco musical. From here, it transitions into an implausible ragtime-inflected breakdown (perhaps my favorite minute on the entire album — seriously), which then shifts into an unabashedly grand crescendo built around choral repetition of the Disney-ready line “If love is the answer, hold on.” By bringing together a multitudinous array of musical notions and inspirations in such a creative way, Daft Punk comes closest to their stated goal of changing the direction of popular music with this song; rather than simply being a skillful rehashing of the sounds of the past, “Touch” instead processes these influences to create something thrillingly original and truly compelling.
Not every collaboration on Random Access Memories is quite as efficacious, however. The real tragedy is the presence of Pharrell Williams. Instrumentally, “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” are both infectious, brilliantly conceived tracks. However, Pharrell’s questionable vocals — which are consistently shallow and occasionally shockingly off-pitch (honestly, how was this allowed to appear on an album as seemingly obsessed over as Random Access Memories?) — prevent both of these songs from fully realizing their enormous potential. By a similar token, “Doin’ It Right,” Daft Punk’s collaboration with Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, comes achingly close to being the best song on the album — the moment when Panda’s vocals first enter alongside the vocoded repetition of the titular phrase is simply gorgeous. However, as the song progresses, it completely flatlines, suffering from its somewhat anti-climactic refrain and overall lack of compelling musical development. It’s not a bad track by any means, but it’s painful to hear just how close Daft Punk and Panda Bear came to achieving a transcendent level of musical synergy.
At its best, Random Access Memories lives up to the above quote by Paul Williams, existing as an exceptionally emotive, enjoyable, and intellectually interesting achievement that only a band with the musical legacy and material assets of Daft Punk could possibly have constructed. At its worst, however, the album simply emulates, merely recreates without adding anything of substance to the intertextual dialogue that it so explicitly engages in with the music of the past. Our original question remains to be answered, however: does Random Access Memories succeed in offering a compelling alternative to the current state of popular and electronic music?
“You’re listening to [the songs on Random Access Memories] and they’re future classics. They’ve brought the sound of something that’s been lost for a long time.”
– Todd Edwards
In a literal sense, I believe that Daft Punk does indeed achieve its most basic aim: Random Access Memories is by no means a perfect record, but it consistently possesses an inspired, organic sense of a vitality, a quality that is often denied by the cut-and-paste status quo of EDM. And yet, it’s hard for me to buy into the claim laid out in the “Collaborators” videos that this album will change the course of electronic and popular music, for the greatest successes of the record seem to result from the extraordinary material privilege — in terms of the high level of musicianship and impressive quality of analog production technology — that Daft Punk clearly enjoyed while crafting the album.
Unlike my opening anecdote about the first time I heard Discovery, I simply can’t imagine a young, impressionable listener being handed a CD-R of Random Access Memories and having the sort of incredible, mind-expanding musical experience that Discovery afforded me. While the statements made about the album in advance of its release — such as the above quote by Todd Edwards taken from his “Collaborators” video — position the album as a massive, monumental musical achievement, this is simply not the case. It’s truly a shame that the opportunity to hear this album with fresh, unprepared ears was denied to Daft Punk’s collective listenership, for as soon as one lets go of his or her expectations and preconceived notions, Random Access Memories begins to reveal its own merits as a well-produced, enjoyable piece of musical pastiche.