Daft Punk unleash their inner disco auteurs and release a colossal, self-indulgent mess as their comeback album. And make it work.
It’s bizarre to realise, but even a quick glance towards Wikipedia is enough to point out that Daft Punk have released barely anything of real importance for over a decade. The last time they felt as big as their reputation was back when Discovery ruled the world’s airwaves in the early '00s. Ever since then it’s been a serious of diminishing returns and largely forgotten releases: the deeply flawed though rather underrated Human After All only ever gets a mention when people discuss how disappointing it was, the buzz around the Tron soundtrack died down quickly after people realised it was a movie soundtrack rather than a proper Daft Punk album, and barely anyone even knows there’s a few remix albums and compilations floating around.
The only time they’ve made a ripple during the past ten years has been their famous tour in the latter half of the '00s (documented in the Alive 2007 live album). From atop their glowing pyramid, Daft Punk brought electronic dance music back into the large-scale live concert setting and at the same time redefined what was expected from such concerts. It’s the legacy of their actions like that where their importance and reputation are built on. While the French duo have been barely active for years, everything they have done from their music to their live performances to their visuals have had a huge impact on mainstream electronic music as a whole, laying down the groundwork for the EDM craze of the last few years.
And so here they are, returning from their long-time absence to a world where they have visibly left their mark, eagerly awaited by not only long-time fans but all the new audiences who have been attracted to them due to the constant presence of their shadow. The EDM scene has waited for their icons for so long to show a new way onward, but in a surprise twist Daft Punk have no interest in what’s happening right now. In interviews they’ve seemed almost dismissive of the modern state of dance music, berating its cold and mechanical nature and showing no desire to work within it. Unsurprisingly, they’ve chosen to ignore the present and look behind, returning to sounds long gone rather than continuing what they began.
They’ve moved onto a sound they have described as more warm and organic, the '70s and early '80s and, in particular, the disco part of that era, and they've replaced their electronic gadgets with live instruments and retro synthesizers. While the '70s-'80s disco scene has always flowed in Daft Punk’s veins, with Discovery especially being somewhat of a tribute to it by sampling songs from the period and bringing them back to the modern day, Random Access Memories takes a step further and wants to be the real deal rather than just a tribute. Daft Punk have drafted legends of the era like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder into the studio and utilised instruments of the period to craft their music. It’s two disco fanatics fulfilling their wild desires and ambitions, ignoring what everyone else is doing or saying.
Sounds self-indulgent? It is. Random Access Memories carries all the signs of an album where no one outside its creators was allowed to say a word and which has been perfectionistically worked on for years in the depths of studios. It’s 75 minutes long, carries songs so ambitious they veer on pretentious in shape of multi-part suites and extended jams built around spoken word passages, treats ideas and sounds normally brushed off as corny or dated with respect and love and generally shows zero regard to what anyone might think about it. And unlike what you’d expect from what is at first glance a disco album, it’s not particularly dancey either. On surface it might be an album heavily rooted in one of the most iconic dance sounds of the recent music history, but in its essence Random Access Memories is more of an auteur album designed to tickle your brain rather than move your feet: a record created by two music nerds for their own fun rather than to get people to boogie for one more time. The more you listen the more you realise that in the end it’s not a disco album per se, but an exercise in revitalising the studio wizardry of the era.
This could be a bad thing, and often Random Access Memories feels like the concept, the ideas and the self-indulgence came first and the actual album came second. This is most notable in the how the album flows, or rather, how it doesn’t. Despite the shared aesthetics, there’s a grand amount of different moods and sounds going on throughout the 13 songs and they never fit together. The flow of the album is one of constant stops and starts and mismatched pairs, grinding down to a halt just as the party gets going and pairing up tracks with no logical continuity between one another. It feels like the album is always on shuffle and random tracks pop up whenever they please, which leads to a jarring listening experience that doesn't always do justice to the songs. The album’s self-described heart and centrepiece “Touch” represents this a bit too well. It bounces from one excellent part to another, moving from jazzy disco to beautiful choral ballads and more in mere moments, but it sounds like leftover parts put together awkwardly. Much like the album itself, it’s a composite of great parts which move from one another in an awkward, constantly halting in a way that does not let the strength of its individual parts shine. You can’t help but feel like you’re listening to an untidy pile of ideas; a feeling that stretches throughout the album.
The important thing, however, is that these ideas are genuinely great and often seriously impressive. Daft Punk have mastered the art of the hook and here that talent has been mixed with artistic ambition to create songs that are often downright impressive musical statements, while the production carries a depth and warmth previously unheard on a Daft Punk album. The lead single “Get Lucky” shows as much, as it acts like a greatest hits collection of every great musical building block of disco, taking all the elements associated with the genre and bringing them together in a masterful, effortless way that sounds both timeless and positively throwback. It’s not far away from old earworms like “Da Funk” or “One More Time”, but this time it’s armed with a smooth bass riff and flowing groove very unlikely the robotic rhythms of the past. It also makes the surprising revelation that Pharrell Williams, who does the vocals both on “Get Lucky” as well as the infectious slow groove “Lose Yourself to Dance”, is secretly a disco king who’s been waiting for all this time to emerge.
“Instant Crush” and “Fragments of Time” play with sounds that would sound natural in the cheesy depths of an AOR radio station, but they manage to evoke all the nostalgia of those sounds lovingly without falling into cringe. The former, in particular, is a brilliant bittersweet torchsong where the heavily processed vocals by Julian Casablancas sound more in form than ever in his time with the Strokes. The calmer moments like “Beyond” and “The Game of Love” take things towards the evocative, filling the air with suave, spacey soundscapes that really come alive when you put the headphones on. The greatest of all is “Giorgio by Moroder”, the real centrepiece of the album, a nine-minute journey through the life of the man in the title, narrated by Moroder himself with the music adapting in style and detail to his unfolding story. The result is such a fantastic journey through various moods and sounds that you’ll easily forgive how it starts out sounding like a Spotify advert. In many ways it’s a condensed version of the entire album’s statement: treating the past with respect and resurrecting it with love. While the album doesn't quite support its massive length, the only real letdown among the 13 songs is the the Panda Bear-featuring “Doin’ It Right”, which abandons the album’s concept entirely both in style and in production (being the only fully electronic track) and feels like a guest production someone forcefully crammed into the tracklist.
The somewhat awkward way it’s been put together and the slight overlength it has prevents Random Access Memories from being the seminal masterpiece it wants to be, but it doesn't stop the album from being a genuinely great listen. Throwback albums like this are always potentially problematic because there is a clear barrier between successfully showing your love for a particular nostalgic sound you care for and simply imitating past glories in a superficial and ultimately needless way. Daft Punk’s passion for everything the era they want to bring back represents is evident everywhere. It’s never just a pastiche or going retro for retro’s sake: they’re utilising methods of the past to create something new true to their own vision. It has no chance in hell to answer to all the hype and buzz around it, it’s not going to impact the dance music scene that reveres the robots so and you might as well be playing it on shuffle, but it’s a rich and warm musical experience that suits both the dancefloor and concentrated headphone listening in equal amounts that forms an important part of the duo’s musical journey.