Opening with a guitar riff that defiantly announces the presence of analog instruments in what most presume is a purely digital world, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories feels like the first artifact from an anachronistic future – a weirdly, and beautifully, humanistic time capsule from long after the machines have taken over. A redefinition of the duo’s music filtered though the artists that inspired them, their fourth proper album (not counting their score for TRON: Legacy) is a reminder of the precision of their artistry, and at the same time a declaration of independence – mostly from any sense of obligation, or perhaps pressure, to create more of the same game-changing anthems that once irrevocably transformed electronic music.
That guitar-driven opener, “Give Life Back To Music,” is a subdued reintroduction to the band’s pop impulses, even as its title serves as a guiding principle for the duo’s work on Random Access Memories. In interviews, Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have lamented the absence of organic substance in music that uses so much technology, and in many cases across the album’s 13 tracks, there seem to be no traces whatsoever of the hermetically-sealed production that has become synonymous with not just their own music but electronica in general. But it’s with the disc’s second cut, “The Game Of Love,” that Daft Punk steps off the dance floor and says that their new music will be different – more understated, contemplative, retaining its infectiousness even as it looks beyond shaking behinds and on towards moving listeners’ heart and soul.
“The Game Of Love” is remarkable initially because it’s down tempo – a bold choice for an album expected to be filled with dancefloor bangers – but its earnest melodicism reveals Daft Punk’s glorious fealty to schmaltz, a quality typically overstated by operatic balladeering, but here, turned inward as a melancholy love letter. The absence of a distinctive singing voice behind its refrain oddly underscores its sadness: singing for themselves under layers of electronic processing, Daft Punk sound like a depressed chess program whose opponent decided one day not to play any more. And it’s that push-pull dynamic of their robot personas and the desire to inject their work with humanity which elevates Random Access Memories to some sort of concept album, albeit seemingly inadvertently. Through a certain resignation to the necessity of technology to communicate their feelings, the duo reveal the people beneath their masks – the robots who achieved sentience, now seeking the emotional gratification their human counterparts take for granted.
“Giorgio By Moroder” highlights the album’s other throughline, a celebration of musicianship which has been itself taken for granted, or otherwise subsumed by the chilly efficiency of computers. Strictly speaking, it’s an interview with the great disco producer and composer set to music which he himself might have composed three or four decades ago; but as Moroder’s story of his origins unfolds, the arrangements become more complex, evolving from, say, the percussive opening notes of his music for “Midnight Express” into a fusion-jazz synthesizer freakout, augmented by metronome-precision drumming and deftly complementary turntablism. At around the five-minute mark, Moroder observes, “Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want.” The entire album is a testament to that idea, and it’s easy to imagine that Homem-Christo and Bangalter heard the line and said to one another, “we have our structural foundation.”
It’s interesting that Daft Punk elected to work with guests whose voices sound more than passingly similar to theirs – singers like The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas and Pharrell Williams, who possess clarity, if not always strength. And even though the duo apply their technological veneer to those guests’ vocals, the results are distinctive and soulful, and markedly different without sounding out of place among the tracks featuring only Daft Punk. Casablancas’ verses on “Instant Crush,” for example, occupy the same youthful but resonant space as early Phoenix or Tahiti 80 songs, wearing heart-on-a-shirtsleeve sincerity that belies a wistful nostalgia, reflecting on the uneasy fun of a friendship maintained less out of love than loneliness.
Williams does double duty on the album, first on the ubiquitous single “Get Lucky,” and then on “Lose Yourself To Dance,” which probably should be its second. The latter track actually appears earlier in the album’s sequencing than “Get Lucky,” and it feels like a showcase for Daft Punk’s skills as arrangers, almost at the expense of Williams, whose skeletal production as half of the Neptunes typically charms with anemia; the chugging anthem seems to suggest, “this is what you can do with just a few instruments and a whole lot of creativity.” But “Get Lucky” is a semi-perfect single, both as a calling card for the album and a tribute to the disco that inspired Homem-Christo and Bangalter, with Williams turning what might otherwise play as ambitious seduction into a substantially more meaningful and timeless connection between like-minded revelers.
The centerpiece of the album is “Touch,” a collaboration with “The Rainbow Connection” and “Phantom Of The Paradise” composer Paul Williams. At 72, Williams’ voice exudes fragility, but it retains the personality that made him such an icon of the 1970s, and Daft Punk’s obvious affection for his work forges a musical mindmeld that lives in multiple eras – shuffling ragtime piano, synthesizer work that recalls Isao Tomita, and live drumming, manipulated via computer, which keeps time and chases down different tempos -- as the song navigates its way from one to the next.
If fans of Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy music were hoping for more of the same on Random Access Memories, they should probably start with “Motherboard” first. A purely instrumental track, it’s infused with the same vaguely sinister melodic undercurrents that became leitmotifs in their scoring work. But it’s the album’s outlier: although it’s another mid-tempo bubbler, it feels more like a track by their Gallic counterparts Air than a bona fide Daft cut. And oddly, within the context of the rest of the tracks’ wildly divergent styles, it’s an underwhelming addition, even if it’s got the same precision and beauty as the rest.
But as a whole, the album’s greatest strength is, perhaps counterintuitively, that it seldom feels of a whole piece. By comparison, “Discovery” and “Human After All” are start-to-finish listening experiences whose tracks are differentiated only by one’s familiarity with their individual details. This album is all individual details, applied with meticulous precision to tracks that are deliberately not meant to fit together, and weirdly, the end result feels startlingly cohesive. Whether it’s the Daft Punk you want or not is up to you; but make no mistake – there’s nothing random about Random Access Memories, even if its eclectic makeup suggests otherwise. And once the din of anticipation – and the outrage of unmet expectations -- has receded, it may prove to be the Daft Punk record fans return to most, because it seems likeliest to reward multiple listens, not to mention comfortably occupy the space between the dancefloors that its predecessors fill.