Since Daft Punk’s highly anticipated new album Random Access Memories leaked to the masses last week, it would appear that the opinions so far on the album are very polarized. For some reason, many are reviewing it as though the last album the french duo released was 2001’s Discovery. The reality is that it just took so long for the masses to catch on to just how ahead of its time Daft Punk was. Their sci-fi robot concept, their use of electronic gadgetry and vocoder or autotuned vocals, used for dehumanizing effect long before the pop world adapted it as a norm, and several of the ideas on their best known album have been overused and misused by others. Many people kind of missed 2004’s Human After All. Even I must admit that my patience was tried by that album, which was hastily recorded in six weeks, and had several great ideas, but was fleshed out with repetitive editing and mixing, with tracks not reaching the emotional peak many of Discovery‘s tracks reached. These ideas worked great in a live setting, as proved on the Alive 2007 album, when mixed and mashed up with earlier breakbeat based tracks such as their classic “Da Funk”. But since their last proper album almost a decade ago, the band has scored the Tron Legacy film. I would imagine this brought a new depth to the duo’s approach to music. It was something different and challenging. Somewhere in that timeline, hip-hop acts like Kanye West and Busta Rhymes started catching on to and sampling some of the group’s better tracks, bringing the idea of Daft Punk to the masses. Even if the group was beyond that point musically now.
So he we are in the now. The media frenzy building up to Random Access Memories has been massive. Teaser spots during Saturday Night Live and on YouTube may have led people to think they were getting the same old familiar Daft Punk. Unfortunately with so much hype, people now expect their own personal perfection when hearing this album. But now Daft Punk has a new concept. They want to pay homage to the funk, r&b and mellow pop of the late 70s and early 80s by filtering it through their robot masks.
The album starts off in grand intro style, almost reminding me of Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” before launching into “Give Life Back To Music”, a loose funky groove with those familiar robotic vocals, but this time in a more nostalgic tone. The song features guitar from Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr, who played on Thriller and several Michael Jackson albums afterward, and drums by John Robinson, who has played on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and famous recordings by Rufus, Pointer Sisters, Madonna and even David Lee Roth’s Crazy From the Heat EP. And that’s how this song sounds, like a funky jam with all those greats.
“The Game of Love” follows, which is a slow early 80s funky r&b ballad, expressing the feelings of a robot or android longing to feel human, as opposed to the modern pop idea to make humans as robotic as possible. It makes for one bizarre and sad love song.
Coming in third, and one of my favorites by far, is the track “Georgio by Moroder”, which not only serves as a musical tribute to one of the godfathers of electronic music, but gives Mr. Moroder a chance to tell his story briefly as the intro builds into a disco jam of spectacular heights using lots of vintage analog synthesizers and funky disco bass. Then after a break the song gets a swift kick with a live drum breakdown.
Next we have the mellow chillout of “Within”, a collaboration with jazz pianist Chilly Gonzales. After a short, contemplative breath we move on to “Instant Crush” which is, gasp!, a mellow rock song that approaches the style of early 80s Alan Parsons Project. This one features Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, given a heavy vocoder treatment. The blend of styles between The Strokes and Daft Punk has a quite unusual effect, but very soothing. Following that is a funk jam called “Lose Yourself To Dance” that has a heavy live drum beat, high end register vocals by Pharrell Williams that wouldn’t be out of place on a N.E.R.D album, as he too likes to genre-hop.
One of the bigger surprises of the album comes on the track “Touch”. The group chose to tap songwriter John Williams to collaborate. Williams is responsible heavily for the songs behind Jim Henson’s The Muppet Movie, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, and The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”. He wrote “The Rainbow Connection” fer chrissakes! Being that I’m a huge fan of all things Jim Henson, this scores major extra points for me. The track itself is a sprawling multi layered affair that sounds like the soundtrack to a very bizarre musical. At first it seems very mellow in nature, but the layers of this one really crept up on me, making me want to listen to it several more times and be pulled in.
Then we are pulled back down out of the clouds for the funky bass and breezy guitar of “Get Lucky”. This one also features Nile Rodgers and very clearly, Thriller and Off The Wall alumni, as the guitar and bass grooves have that feel that lands between “Good Times”, “Rock With You” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. The album version does this more justice than the single edit that’s out there on Spotify. It gives the groove some time to set in. Pharrell gives his signature laid back vocal delivery here. This song sounds like the background music for a warm lazy summer day.
“Beyond” follows with a lush string arrangement kicking it off, then locking into a groove similar to Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin'” (or for kids of the 90s, Warren G.’s “Regulate” which was built on a sample of that song). It sounds much like a sequel to the Discovery track “Something About Us”. “Motherboard” then takes us on somewhat of a futuristic jazz excursion that’s a bit more seventies Herbie Hancock than it is chillout. “Fragments of Time” is more upbeat, yet still mellow, building on the soft rock sounds of the late 70s into the 80s. This one features vocals by Todd Edwards, whose vocals graced Discovery‘s “Face To Face”. This is Steely Daft. Then in direct contrast, the next track “Doing It Right” is a very electronic affair, with what seems to be an 808 beat and a hip-hop pace, something like L.L. Cool J’s “Jack the Ripper” meets Gregory Abbott’s “Shake You Down”.
The finale track “Contact” goes for the grandiose. It starts with samples of transmissions from Apollo 17 in 1972, an energetic synth line, and then gives way to a drumming and keyboard frenzy. It continues to build and build more momentum as the aural version of the excitement of a space flight, building to a peak, and then one peaceful release.
What Daft Punk has essentially has done here is something few do in the world of electronic music today, and that is to make a headphones album. This is an album that demands a bit of real attention out of the listener to appreciate the layers of details that have been labored over. They have tried to recapture the feeling of a time when synthesizers were an exciting new tool to express things you couldn’t before, rather than now when they are a crutch for too many. They have worked to make something very human and raw out of something that is generally considered cold and robotic. I’ve read some reviews that basically say Daft Punk are no longer innovators. I strongly disagree. Rather than try to outdo their own classics that have inspired so many others in the past decade, they have decided that EDM needs to try a road less traveled and see where it leads. This is the first stretch of road down that path. This isn’t ringtone music. It’s soul for the robotic age.
Check out some music from this album:
“Lose Yourself To Dance”:
“Give Life Back To Music” (perfectly set to Soul Train clips):