Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’ – Album Review
Wrapped up in the overblown, ubiquitous promotional cycle (SNL teasers, behind-the-scenes interviews, etc.) behind Daft Punk's latest album, it's easy to forget these EDM-pioneering robots are human after all. Other than their largely passable 'Tron' soundtrack, the French duo have only released three albums -- and one of them, 2007's 'Human After All,' was almost unanimously panned.
In reality, Daft Punk's myth outweighs their music: Even their breakout album, 2001's 'Discovery,' had its share of filler, and all of those mind-blowing anthems ('One More Time,' 'Harder, Better Faster, Stronger') are a decade-plus in the rear-view. By donning robot masks, performing only scarcely and laying low on the interview circuit, Daft Punk have always actively participated in their own myth-making. With 'Random Access Memories,' they've finally made an album worth building a myth around.
Ironically, on their finest album, Daft Punk mostly ditch the sampled, programmed electronic music that is their trademark. 'RAM' isn't quite the straight-ahead future-disco blockbuster suggested by those early teases of the Pharrell-boasting 'Get Lucky' -- instead, it's a roller-coaster potpourri of disco, synth-funk, easy-listening, jazz-fusion, Disney musicals, and prog. It's one of the most ridiculous albums in recent memory -- a mind-numbing, futuristic voyage through every rhythm-based musical sub-genre of the late '70s.
Linking the robots' disparate sounds is a palpable human touch. The album's hypnotic grooves and wildfire solos were cherry-picked and assembled from jam sessions with a who's-who of '70s session aces, including guitarists Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr., bassists Nathan East and James Genus and drummers Omar Hakim and "J.R." Robinson. Though the robots (Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) add their vintage vocoders and synths (along with the occasional guitar), they're mostly hands-off, allowing the studio whizzes to propel these tracks.
It's an admirable approach, harkening back to Steely Dan's 1977 opus 'Aja' -- not only because of its air-tight engineering, but also for its sheer musical ambition. Like Walter Becker and Donald Fagen before them, Daft Punk weren't content to simply write great songs. They wanted to find the absolute best players to capture these moments on tape. And so they did.
The album opens with 'Give Life Back to Music,' a dizzying disco groove built on Nile Rogers' sublime rhythm guitar accents. The lyrics celebrate the physical, visceral nature of music, and it's easy to feel the human element, the hi-hats trailing slightly off the beat, the fret noise from Rogers' guitar audible in the mix. It's a perfect introduction to the new Daft Punk aesthetic, but it's not necessarily a good indicator of the sprawling weirdness to come. 'The Game of Love' is a vast, funky metropolis of vocoder and bass; 'Motherboard' is an instrumental space-funk-prog odyssey; 'Fragments of Time' is a breezy homage to Steely Dan.
And then there are the true head-scratchers. 'Giorgio by Moroder' is a hybrid of easy listening, jazz-fusion, big-budget action-film score and nightmarish electronica, peppered with a heartfelt voiceover from the titular disco legend. It's so over-the-top, it really shouldn't work, but it's performed with so much intensity and conviction, it's impossible to resist. On the other hand, 'Touch' is almost unbearably corny, what with its musical-theater verse from Paul Williams, chanting children's choirs and 'A Day in the Life'-style string flourishes. But within the album's "anything-flies" context, it somehow makes a strange level of sense.
'Random Access Memories' is overlong (clocking out at 74 minutes), overly ambitious and often absurd to the point of annoyance. It's also endlessly fascinating -- an unclassifiable artifact from a kaleidoscopic future-past.