Daft Punk's Random Access Memories emphatically exploits pop music's reliance on context. It's been eight years since the French house pop-crossover critical darlings released their last full-length album, 2005’s Human After All, which was initially a considered a disappointment. In that span, Human's furious pummeling and caustic textures went on to influence the prevailing style of house music more than any other single work of the past 10 years. If their prescience wasn't enough to bring Daft Punk back into the good graces of their audience, surely their 2007 live show performed on a mesmerizing light-up pyramid was.
Random Access Memories (which began streaming on iTunes this week) is a pointed response to their past work and the EDM it inspired. It turns away from their trusted synthesizers and drum machines for something more "live," something featuring disco god Nile Rogers on guitar and session musicians who played with Bowie and on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.
This is more than a stylistic shift. As the chattier half of the duo, Thomas Bangalter, recently told Rolling Stone:
Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone and it’s not moving one inch. That’s not what artists are supposed to do…[The genre is suffering] an identity crisis: You hear a song, whose track is it? There’s no signature.
If it was funny that their most suffocatingly programmed release was called Human After All, it's even funnier that after Human After All, these robots show us that they are human after all. "Emotion" is a word they have been using a lot to describe the record's objective.
To put their own signature on dance music in 2013, Daft Punk trace the hands of forebears like Rogers and electronic dance music pioneer (decades before EDM) Giorgio Moroder. The latter does a rambling spoken account of his musical history over watered-down approximations of his arpeggiated disco and his proggy flourishes on the nine-minute “Giorgio.” Random Access Memories is often disco, but when it is it's of the slow-chug variety. The stellar first single, “Get Lucky,” is as energetic as it gets. It also routinely dips into a slower, self-consciously smooth groove resembling lite fare like the Alan Parsons Project's “Eye in the Sky.”
Random Access Memories is album-oriented pop in a time of singles. It is full of drum-kit-workout breakdowns and little shimmies of guitar riffs that would have sounded trite within the late '70s/early '80s era that Daft Punk salute. But these references are self-evident enough to be easily forgiven. And if the retroism isn’t evident, well, Daft Punk will explain it to you—with features in Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times, Billboard, Dazed, and Pitchfork, the mystery-valuing duo are talking more than ever. Context is crucial for something this subtle.
Daft Punk marry these vintage influences with their affinity for slithering melodies and repetitive near-songs (on Random Access, the second verse is often the same as the first). To the Times, Bangalter rhapsodized the “infinity of nuance, in the shuffles and the grooves” made by human hands, not machines. But given its loopy, simplistic nature, this huge production—which took years to complete and roped in big names of varying genres like Pharrell Williams and Animal Collective's Panda Bear—feels akin to a rediscovery of the lost art of cursive or long division. Yes, it is more dynamic and warmer than the block waveforms of Top 40 radio. Yes, the drums have a satisfying spring no matter how mellow the groove. Yes, you feel space here. Yes, craftsmanship is a forgotten pop virtue. And that handmade garment with such lovely decorative lining is so special to the person who's wearing it.
For all of the work that went into it, and that went into making it an event (those SNL promos built such suspense that the release of “Get Lucky” felt orgasmic), there is something slight about this album. It would be one thing if we were actually living in the disco era and Random Access Memories were one album in a string of them—if this were Daft Punk’s C’est Chic, for example. But this is rare output from trusted tastemakers. The hype and possibility were more intoxicating than this rather dry work. I can’t imagine listening to most of this album after this week.
And yet, I admire Random Access Memories. I love Daft Punk for confronting a public that is more attentive than ever with the audacity of cheese. I think it's bold of them to force kids today to consider the past that their moment-fetishizing #yolo lifestyle is founded upon. I appreciate them for giving us disco to unite us in these gay times. But if these are its key strengths, Random Access Memories works better as an object than an album.