It’s been eight years since the world has seen a proper album from the robots of Daft Punk. Sure, there was a film score here (2010’s divisively electronic “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack) and a live album there (the lauded “Alive 2007”), but the last real effort from the group was “Human After All” in 2005.
Famously recorded in six weeks with only two guitars and a drum machine, critical reaction to “Human” was underwhelming, but in the years since the entire genre of EDM has risen in the duo’s absence, taking partial inspiration from its sparse, digital styles.Where everyone expected Daft Punk to zig, they zagged.As such, the heavily anticipated “Random Access Memories,” the fourth studio album from Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo, has been largely seen as the next step in the evolution of dance music. Where everyone expected Daft Punk to zig, however, they zagged. Instead of looking toward the future, the two looped around to their musical pasts, creating a sprawling, 74-minute rebuttal to the laptop-based present featuring live instruments, one solitary sample and more collaborations than they ever have before.
“Random Access Memories,” as an album, is as much about music as it actually *is* music. From the beginning, a blast-from-the-past arena rock opening to “Give Life Back to Music,” to the blistering drum fills of its closing “Contact,” Daft Punk’s latest hearkens back to an earlier time in the music scene, the days of nonstop dancing on “Soul Train” and in disco halls. If there’s a thesis running throughout this record’s sonic veins, it’s a return to the classics, a rebuttal to what Daft Punk considers the overly-technological roots of modern music.
The band gets a little prog-rocky, even, in trying to prove their point, and the results are heavily divisive. Nine-minute-long third track “Giorgio By Moroder,” for instance, dedicates almost a third of its runtime to a spoken-word interview from Italian producing legend Giorgio Moroder. As the man behind such varied hits as the “Top Gun” soundtrack, David Bowie’s “Cat People” and Blondie’s “Call Me” gets into the details from his early days in the music world, the heavy synthesizers backing him transform and morph through musical influences across the last fifty years; once his deliciously European accent leaves the scene, Bangalter and Homem-Christo progress through an orchestral breakdown into record scratches and, eventually, a guitar solo that sounds like the second coming of “Aerodynamic,” one of the hit singles from the robots’ most-beloved album “Discovery.”
“Moroder” is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, a celebration of both precision and excess, but even it pales in comparison to the album’s biggest departure from traditional songwriting, “Touch.” Paul Williams, the famous ‘70s craftsman known for film scores and songs including the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection,” sings a robotic love song longing for more, and the backing music sweeps from a minimalist spacial landscape to a ragtime bridge and back again. Like the album itself, “Touch” is a love-it-or-hate-it effort fully devoted to its message, for better or worse.Half of the album is an infectious get-up-and-dance jam.This isn’t to say “Random Access Memories” is without mainstream appeal. For every dour, downbeat robot vocoder love song like “The Game of Love” and “Within,” plenty of the robots’ friends came to play. From the sexy disco riffs of legendary Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers running rampant throughout the album to vocal turns by Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, Panda Bear of Animal Collective and super-producer Pharrell Williams, half of the album is an infectious get-up-and-dance jam. The new wave/French pop influence on “Instant Crush,” the Michael Jackson “Bad” aping done by “Lose Yourself to Dance” and ‘70s throwback on top-10 lead single “Get Lucky” fill “Random Access Memories” with the soul it claims its competitors lack.
At face value, “Random Access Memories” is an interesting and extremely fun, though not entirely successful, attempt to turn back the modern musical clock. While the sheer effort put into the album makes it worth listening to by any music lover, at the same time it can’t overcome the out-there qualities of its more contentious efforts. Then again, critics said the same of “Homework,” and of “Discovery,” and of “Human After All,” all three of which now stand as classics.