Counterbalance: Daft Punk’s ‘Discovery’

Last night I dreamed about you, 202nd most acclaimed album of all time. I'm dancing beside you, and it looks like everyone is having fun. Or are we? An electronic landmark from 2001 is this week's Counterbalance.
Daft Punk

Mendelsohn: For your consideration, Klinger, I present to you Daft Punk, the Parisian duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, who pretend to be robots in order to create funky, beat-driven snippets of reimagined 1970s disco funk and 1980s synth pop. On the docket this week is their 2001 career-making album Discovery. Daft Punk has three albums lodged in the 200s of the Great List. Discovery sits at #202, 1997’s Homework is #241, and 2013’s Random Access Memory is #261.

Normally I would have made you listen to Homework, because that is my favorite Daft Punk album, but I’m trying to be a little more open-minded about music and for many years I looked down upon Discovery as Daft Punk’s apparent cash grab since it helped transform them from darlings of the underground to world-wide superstars. In that vein, I owe my friend Josh a heart-felt apology. I repeatedly told him that Discovery was a terrible record and not worth the listen, especially considering that Homework was by far the superior record. If you are out there Josh, I am sorry. You were right, Discovery is the better album. Although the professional football team you root for is still terrible and I will never feel sorry about holding that over your head.

Klinger: Mm, yes. I’m glad we cleared that up.

Mendelsohn: Now that I have that off my chest, lets move on. Tell me, Klinger. How do you feel about Daft Punk’s overly-stylized approach to reappropriating the music of the late 1970s and early 1980s in some sort of effort to re-write music history in their own robotic image? Was there too much vocoder on this record? Did it make you want to short circuit? Or was there just the right amount of digital love? We can talk about this face to face, if you like. It has been too long since we have gotten together for beers, how about a couple of High Lifes? Maybe you just need to listen to this record one more time? I’m sure once you do, you will admit that this record is harder, better, faster and stronger than anything you’ve ever heard. I’m going to quit because I have no idea how to work “Crescendolls” into this go-nowhere piece. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Kind of like pretending to be robots. Am I right?

Klinger: Actually I’m quite disappointed to learn that the members of Daft Punk are not in fact robots. The knowledge that they’re human makes me feel almost sorry that I find this record as crushingly dull as I do. I’ve been trying over the years to get inside this electronic music you occasionally foist upon me, Mendelsohn, and every once in a while I get close. But this Discovery is a bafflement to me. I have a hard time understanding why any of these songs are more than a minute and a half long, since that’s usually the point at which they seem to run out of ideas. Following the inevitable breakdown, when the vocoder sounds from a 1981 Steve Winwood song kick in, I usual feel pretty safe in pressing the next button.

And maybe it’s because the early ’80s were my awkward early teenage years, but I’m not especially eager to relive them in synthesizer form. These smooth yacht rock sounds are something I thought we had all agreed not to be nostalgic for, like Members Only jackets and parachute pants. Yet here we are. Come to think of it, even the album’s name is nicked from the Electric Light Orchestra (who I don’t actually have anything against). And I say all this with some measure of trepidation, since I now realize I’m disparaging the work of humans and not just being mean to robots, which to my way of thinking is pretty much OK.

Mendelsohn: You will only have a couple more years to disparage robots. Once the humans make the mistake of granting sentience to a couple of machines, we are all in for a world of hurt. Thanks to the coming Internet of Things, your toaster will remember every insult you ever hurled at it after producing yet another piece of burned bread and before long, every electronic gizmo will be gunning for you. But not Daft Punk, because they are human and they just want you to dance and have a good time while they ply you with their non offensive dance muzik.

Deep down, I know Discovery isn’t all that interesting. The record full of washed-over nostalgia for music that shouldn’t have been resurrected. In places the album can be repetitive at best and derivative at worst. And it is definitely a little front-loaded as the back half of the album fades into a sameness of house beats and robot vocals. But despite all of that, Daft Punk is highly regarded within critical circles. Personally, I’m a little mystified by it and part of me wants to chalk it up to great marketing. Pretending to be robots, never showing their faces and hardly doing any press has made the mystique of Daft Punk a highly marketable brand. But it also doesn’t hurt that they create exuberant music that appeals across generational boundaries. Homem-Christo and Bangalter have an incredible knack for sugary pop music and they can present it in such a timeless manner that it doesn’t seem dated almost immediately. They accomplished this feat by pillaging pop music’s past (and I do mean pillage, most notably the disco era, sampling everyone from Barry Manilow to George Duke, but going as far back as to grab some doo-wop courtesy of the Imperials. Toss in some filters, a house beat and signing robots and you have yourself a Daft Punk record. It shouldn’t work but everyone loves it. Hell, I love it even though I know how it’s made.

Look at it this way: Daft Punk is the Skittles of the music world — totally artificial and beloved by all. Even as you are eating too many of them, knowing full they are going to make your teeth hurt, you just can’t stop because they are so enjoyable. Don’t you like Skittles, Klinger?

Klinger: Yes, but with Skittles I reach a point where I just have to stop because I become consumed with self-loathing. That hasn’t happened yet here, so maybe Daft Punk is better than Skittles. And you didn’t have to point out the dulcet tones of our Mr. Manilow — they jumped out of my speakers like a bolt of nasal lightning. The cognitive dissonance of hearing him sing “the air” over and over again nearly drove me into oncoming traffic. Because again, I heard my fill of Barry Manilow the first time around. I find it hard to believe that people would want to continue to do so in this day and age, when they don’t even have to, but there you go.

And look, I don’t want my obstinacy to force you to backpedal on your initial enthusiasm. Electronic music is a tough enough sell for me because a). I’m an inveterate singer-alonger, and I just can’t keep singing “the air” over and over again. I get tired. Also, I tend to find the grooves that move me in the spaces behind the beat, or in front of the beat. It’s the syncopation that makes a song seem alive, fully human if you will. Hitting the beat with the precision of a metronome gives me the feeling that there’s something missing. In jazz or R&B, it’s in the rhythm section, and in hip-hop it’s in the vocals. I can’t find it here. And I can’t help missing it.

Mendelsohn: I think you raise two important points. First, the lock-step beat is a symptom of electronica and befitting of music made by robots. Over the years they have loosened up a little (please see Random Access Memory) but Discovery is born of house music and house music is built by the four-on-the-floor beat set to the rhythm of the metronome. It is unescapable. Some people can look past it — some people can’t. Secondly, I know that feeling of self-loathing after consuming too many Skittles. I, too, have a sweet tooth and will not stop when it comes to the artificial sugar. Skittles, Starburst, Now And Laters, Sweettarts, anything gummy. I’ll eat it until I get a stomach ache. If you sense my enthusiasm for Discovery waning, its because I’ve had too much Daft Punk. But ultimately, I think that’s the key to their popularity and lasting success. Daft Punk makes sugary sweet pop music but does an incredible job packaging and selling it. They are the criterati’s guilty pleasure. Daft Punk can sample Barry Manilow without coming off as ironic or uninformed or out of line — it seems completely natural. What other band can make it OK to appreciate Manilow?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my stomach hurts and my head is spinning. Please hide this record so that I’m not tempted to come back in five minutes and listen to more of it.