Random Access-Memories: Daft Punk's Disco Opus

One of the most highly anticipated albums of the year by one of electronic music's most loved duos. Does the material live up to the hype?
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One of the most highly anticipated albums of the year by one of electronic music's most loved duos. Does the material live up to the hype?

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Expectations scupper enjoyment. Expectations are a cross to bear, and a mantle. What a cruel fate, having earned people's love and respect to the extent that they form an expectation, you then have to toil and fret attempting to meet it. Few acts have aroused as much in the way of expectation as Daft Punk, yet Thomas and Guy-Manuel seem very confident about this release. Confident enough to (almost) put their faces on the cover, in a change to album artwork convention which stretches back to 1997 and Homework. This is not the only DP convention which is smashed on Random Access Memories.

Showstarter 'Give Life Back To Music' thinks life in music originates in the 1970s and 80s, and the rest of the album does not disagree with this. It's a commendable surmise. Everyone thinks this. We're all old enough either to have experienced these decades or to be of the generations which have mined their parent's nostalgia reserves for it's considerable gold. MP3s have seen to this. File sharing has seen to it. Technology really does bring us together. This has been DP's gambit from the outset; playing with the irony that their robot spiel could make them one of the best-loved acts of the last 20 years. Human after all, indeed.

But this is light years from Human After All, the 2005 album around which a damning consensus was formed; it was the ugly child of the duo's LPs. Yes, DP know the rough side of expectations. How important, then, to distinguish themselves on their fourth full length. And how wonderful and complete their success is. The sheer range and depth of the music here is very impressive... it will shock readers who haven't experienced the album yet to read references to prog rock in reviews like this one.

One of the tracks which most deserves that appellation is 'Giorgio By Moroder', which opens with the musical biography of Donna Summer collaborator and early synth advocate Giorgio Moroder. The story wraps up with his stating that he began his innovations in synthesised music with a click track. As he says this a click track slots into place, right before the piece makes its first shift to the modular synthesisers. Before the thing is over and its nine minutes have elapsed you'll hear a free-jazz electric piano solo, orchestral interludes, and an extended live drum solo; Thomas and Guy-Manuel taking us at least three places we've never been with them before. As it winds up they chop a synth drone into discrete kick drum pounds, which both replicate Giorgio's earlier click track and recall the opening to so many of the songs from Homework.

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Despite RAM's profound singularity as a Daft Punk album there are other witty callbacks to their recorded output to be enjoyed. 'Fragments Of Time' spreads its wings in the bridge with a vocoder solo obviously indebted to 'Digital Love''s explosive ending, and the closer 'Contact' has a screaming distortion effect which rises in intensity much like house classics 'Rollin' & Scratchin'' and 'Burnin'' did. These are some of the winking, recognise this moments from what turns out to be an album of moments. Whether its the harmonised dual guitar solo which climbs unexpectedly out of the dulcet second verse of the Julian Casablancas feature 'Instant Crush', or the massed choir voices which sing the line “If love is the answer you're home”, filling the big room of album hearthpiece 'Touch', or the by-now much-venerated vocoder breakdown in lead single 'Get Lucky', which is still the most fun compacted into forty seconds this side of 'Harder Better Faster Stronger'. 

If you wanted to break several laws and venture a criticism of RAM, you might say that some of the tracks have a somewhat static feel to them. Some provide insufficient dynamic change over their five and six minute running times. Some ask too much of their (admittedly sparkling) hooks. The most culpable offender might be the other Pharrell feature, 'Lose Yourself To Dance', which has sparse arrangement save for a well placed vocoder hook. Ultimately the track only serves to display Pharrell's limitations in carrying the song. His deficits are vocal. However these are only the grumblings of a pedant whose job it is to prick holes. The average listen to RAM can yield no substantial complaints.

It's been called the least forward-looking of any Daft Punk album, but I'd argue that after a certain point you have to look back to see forward. The duo have always borrowed heavily (often literally) from the soul/funk groups of the 70s & 80s, and now they've completed the circle by creating their own opus from scratch. The famous French DJs have travelled across continents and through time, recording in Paris, New York and LA studios, and seeking out formative musical heroes to deliver this album. It's a patient and rewarding tribute, helped by a uniquely personal blend of collaborators contemporaneous both with the decades being homaged and with the present. There are no sore thumbs among them, they all really do blend with the mix here, adding compliments to the duo's achievement.

And as for their achievement, it seems to me to be twofold. Firstly, they've finally completed a transition that many of the truly supermassive acts make, which is to move beyond genre. You couldn't really call RAM a dance album; there just aren't the beats. The songs are mostly pop structured, if they're structured at all. DP have always strained at the leash of strict genre categorisations; they've finally broken free with this release. Secondly, and perhaps more ephemerally, Random Access Memories is about accessing a memory pool which, by the grace of technology, we almost all share. It is one of the great popular acts, reanimating one of the most cherished and nostalgic periods in all music. It is a glorious punt at a universally admirable album. We had no right to expect such a proposition from Daft Punk, yet here it is.