Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’: Album Review

Patrick Bowman | May 21, 2013 5:58 am
With Random Access Memories(out today, ), Daft Punk’s first non-Tron related new music since 2005’s Human After All, the iconic EDM masterminds tread perilously close to creating an album’s worth of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Comprised of childhood friends Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo, the French duo have meticulously crafted (and I mean meticulously) 13 tracks of luxuriously reimagined disco, soft rock, prog, retro-house and synth-pop, featuring the actual, bona fide legendary songwriters, producers and session players that made those types of music famous in the first place (Giorgio Moroder, Todd Edwards, Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams, Paul Jackson Jr….uh…Pharrell, etc.)

What distinguishes RAM from a six-disc ’70s/’80s club compendium advertised on Palladia and Fuse at 3:00 a.m. on a Tuesday not only has to do with Bangalter and De Homem-Christo’s complete and utter devotion to the classic styles, and makers, of the dance music they are undoubtedly obsessed with, but it also has to do with their ability to curate every aspect of the album experience — the announcement ads, the teaser spot premieres at Coachella and SNL, The Collaborators video series, the actual sequencing and track progression of the album, the songs themselves — in the manner of a spectacle that was mysterious and alluring. This was all a huge risk, but it’s ultimately rewarding.

The fact that Daft Punk can pull off such a feat of buildup and delivery for RAM in the age of global digital ubiquity and endless content is alone unique and deserves praise — as well as not being photographed separate from their robot costumes since the late ’90s — but that wouldn’t matter if the album itself wasn’t a stunning, seemingly effortlessly constructed piece of subatomically calibrated dance music, gleaming from every perceivable angle like a precision cut diamond hit with a strobe. “Seemingly” being the operative word, because putting RAM together was far from easy: writing and recording the album was a multi-year, globetrotting effort where Bangalter and De Homem-Christo worked with close to 25 collaborators (all extremely accomplished professionals themselves) in five different, world class studios, with the entire project funded by themselves. (“With this record, we had the luxury to do things many people can not do,” Bangalter told Pitchfork earlier this month. “But luxury does not come with comfort.”)

No record released yet this year is capable of surpassing the sheer technical wizardry and eye-popping grandeur of RAM, but Daft Punk do much more on this album than show off the magic that can happen with proper, disciplined use of a professional recording studio. After spending their entire career exploring the emotions hiding inside their robot personas (re: the computers that make their music), Bangalter and De Homem-Christo bridge the gaps between their three original releases — the house-obliterating edginess of Homework, the child-like wonder and somehow retro-future dance floor bangers of Discovery, the joyless, brittle techno of Human After All — by creating vibrant, living takes on the  music that originally inspired them to make music with the actual people who did the inspiring. It’s a Mobius strip of fevered reverence for sure, but when you listen to a song like lead single “Get Lucky,” an almost criminally danceable piece of classic disco with vocals by Pharrell and that Chic Guitar Lick (TM) played by none other than Nile Goddamn Rodgers, it’s thrilling to experience that philosophy in real time, and that feeling never really dissipates.

From the opening proggy bombast of lead track “Give Life Back to Music,” to the song-length tribute to Giorgio Moroder’s life and contribution to electronic dance music “Giorgio by Moroder” (featuring Moroder himself reciting a monologue on his life in music and Daft Punk’s approximation of the early techno he rode to the top of the charts with “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer), to the pulse-quickening orchestral arrangements and subsequent chilly comedown of “Beyond,” Daft Punk are entirely and completely in control of this album, subconsciously directing the listener to synchronize their brainwaves to the music. That’s never more apparent than on the 8:18 album centerpiece “Touch,” a sprawling, emotional collaboration with undisputed ’70s songwriting legend Paul Williams that cycles through ambient techno, disco and melodramatic soft rock that practically hypnotizes the moment Williams achingly croons “Touch, I remember touch / Pictures came with touch / A painter in my mind / Tell me what you see.”

In the end, Random Access Memories is many things: a gamble, a Genesis scroll of Daft Punk’s musical DNA, a mesmerizing summation of their career to this point and a dynamic jumping-off point for the next phase of their creative evolution. Oh, and also, it’s fun. Extremely fucking fun, like album-on-repeat-late-apartment-dance-party- neighbors-calling-the-cops super-fun, which seems like a redundant thing to say about a Daft Punk album at this point. But it’s fun in a totally different way than people were expecting a 2013 Daft Punk album to be fun. If you’re still on the fence regarding your summer soundtrack, Random Access Memories will keep you dancing through September.

Best Song that’s Not the Single: The Paul Williams showcase “Touch” is a stone cold showstopper, a truly ambitious, emotional song built on a seriously out-of-vogue musical style (’70s prog pop) that somehow seems cool as hell.

Best Listened To: When you’re sick of rolling/fist pumping to bro-step from Skrillex, Avicii and Bassnectar and actually want to dance.

Idolator Score: 4.5/5

Patrick Bowman

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