For a band that spawned a veritable legion of imitators, Daft Punk is a remarkably difficult group to nail down. Despite a signature disco-house-hybrid sound and iconic “robot DJ” image, the French duo’s music has run a gamut of emotions, tones, and styles over the years, revealing a depth of musical influence that is often lacking in the band’s contemporaries. Daft Punk’s fourth proper studio album, Random Access Memories, was released on May 17th of this year, and to say that it had a lot of expectations to live up to would be an understatement. The question is, can the album measure up?
The first two songs, “Give Life Back to Music” and “The Game of Love” are pleasant if unremarkable, lacking the bombast of, say, “One More Time.” These tracks aren’t bad but mainly seem like mood-setters for the third track, “Giorgio by Moroder,” a nine-minute piece that is perhaps the highlight of Random Access Memories. Containing no vocals except for a two-minute spoken word sample from (who else) Giorgio Moroder, “Giorgio…” is a sprawling, rollicking stretch of music. Funky basslines and cascading synths give way to orchestral flourishes and guitar solos, and yet despite this multi-faceted structure, the track never sounds meandering or schizophrenic. “Giorgio” is cinematic, epic songwriting at its finest, a trait that “Touch” carries on a few tracks later. Numerous changes in tone and tempo, coupled with an emotional vocal performance from guest Paul Williams, makes the track sound like a twisted disco version of a Broadway musical number. For a band that is so often associated with dance floors and concert venues, these two songs alone, to say nothing of the stunning closer “Contact,” are quite adept at showing how Daft Punk are incredible studio musicians in addition to incredible live performers.
Not everything is perfect, however. Advance single “Get Lucky” isn’t especially interesting; Pharrell Williams’ vocals are fairly standard R&B, and the song never really goes anywhere musically, preferring to steadfastly shuffle around handclaps and a Nile Rogers disco guitar lick. Pharrell’s other contribution, “Lose Yourself to Dance,” is similar musically but fairs better due to its deep bassline and melodic background vocal modulations.
There are very few legitimate missteps on Random Access Memories, but nevertheless it would be remiss to not mention them. “Doin’ it Right” is easily the worst song on here; despite a catchy autotuned vocal sample the serves as the main background melody, the song is ruined by guest vocalist Noah Lennox (one half of Animal Collective). Lennox’s incredibly lame Brian Wilson-wannabe croon is both ill-fitting and ill-advised, turning what could have been a promising tune into something that simply sounds like Animal Collective produced by Daft Punk. The sequencing on the album also feels rather “off” sometimes; for instance, putting the surprisingly downbeat “Instant Crush” right before “Lose Yourself to Dance” feels less like intentional tonal contrast and more like simply awkward placement.
But aside from one bad track and some sequencing quibbles, Random Access Memories is definitely a success. It’s not Discovery, Part 2 but it’s not trying to be. Discovery’s slightly tinny production and simplistic lyrics about love and dancing (and love of dancing) are a far cry from the crystal clear, more mature musings found on this album. Naturally there are plenty of songs about love and dancing (and love of dancing) but Random Access Memories intentionally lacks the child-like naivety of Discovery. That’s not to say the album embraces the dour cynicism of Human After All, either. Discovery was a revelrous, slightly warped time capsule from the 1980s, and Human After All was a bitter lament about post-humanism; it’s only appropriate, then, that Random Access Memories is an enthusiastic-but-aged look back at the sounds and styles that have made Daft Punk into the icons they are.
After all, Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de-Homem Christo aren’t really robots – they’re regular men hitting their 40s, and we all know what happens around that time. The parties don’t go for quite as long anymore, and eventually, all you’re left with are memories; vivid, grandiose memories of times gone by.