There are many who were quite disappointed by Daft Punk’s 2005 release Human After All. I was not one of them. While, certainly, it was not as good as either 1997’s Homework or 2001’s Discovery, I hardly think it’s fair to hold those comparisons against the group. Their first two albums were instant classics. Human After All wasn’t quite as instantly likeable, but it was better than most gave it credit for. I strongly suspect it’ll be one of those albums that gets “rediscovered” in a few years’ time.
But regardless of my opinion, the damage was done, and a group which had up to then held an unblemished record was sullied by the taint of a subpar release. All three of their studio albums have attempted something different. Discovery was probably the single best example of French disco house from the late ’90s, the same scene that gave us Cassius and the Paris Is Burning compilations, and still lingers in our memory as the direct inspiration for latter-day nuevo disco outfits like Justice and the Ed Banger crew. Discovery zigged when most people were probably expecting the duo to zag, eschewing hardcore house beats for a lighter retro-pop sound that both inspired and surpassed almost all of the many subsequent attempts at cashing in on the ’70s and ’80s sounds which followed in its wake.
Human After All seemed like something of an ironic commentary on the high esteem with which the group had been held up to that moment: it was an attempt to loosen up, create something a bit more spontaneous (it was recorded in the span of about six weeks, an eyeblink for these notorious perfectionists). It seemed sort of an attempt at creating a garage album — and I mean garage in terms of both rock and house music. It had the slightly shambolic, off-the-cuff nature of garage rock, as well as the stripped-down speed and nervous energy of New York-style garage house. It was something different, at least.
But the tepid response to Human After All did little to dim their appeal. When they returned to live performance for the first time in almost a decade, rapturous crowds greeted the duo — Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter — across the globe. (I’ve got a friend who managed to catch their performance at Coachella in 2006 — he confirms that it was simply remarkable.) Expectations had been high: despite the general dearth of quality live acts in electronic music, Daft Punk had always been acclaimed as one of the genre’s best, alongside festival stalwarts like Underworld and the Chemical Brothers. The fact that they had refused to tour for almost a decade only added to their mystique. A single anomalous live release, Live 1997, was released a few months following Discovery, in lieu of any touring in support of that album. It was pretty damn awesome, and represented almost the exact opposite of Discovery in both form and function: loose, hard and fast, it was entirely improvised and irresistibly propulsive. Discovery was an example of tight, concise pop songwriting in an electronic, sample-based context. Alive 1997 took Homework’s tracks as the starting point for massive, borderline psychedelic acid-drenched departures. (If you don’t already own a copy, good luck finding Alive 1997, however — Daft Punk deleted the release from their catalog after only two months.)
Rare is the band that can craft a live album good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder alongside its studio releases. Rarer still is the band whose live albums can cross the divide between being merely good and damn near essential. Recorded in Paris on 14 June of this year, Live 2007 represents the group at the absolute peak of their powers. All three albums are represented evenly. The result is a stylistically contiguous melange of what could have been, in other hands, a pretty disparate set of tracks. The best example of this comes at the end of the set, when the duo successfully mix elements of “Rock and Roll”, “Superheroes” and “Human After All” (from their first, second and third albums, respectively) into one six-minute jam that seems neither confused nor precipitous. Rather, the density of the sound contributes to the music’s feverish, climactic intensity.
Repetition is not necessarily a sin in the world of dance music. Daft Punk are careful to use repetition to their advantage, creating exotic mixtures of distorted sound that play against the hypnotic background of an unrelenting house beat. Instead of merely “playing” their hits in a more recognizable fashion, the duo introduce elements from their songs into a more general, elastic mixture that enables elements from multiple songs to coexist in a single flow, and single elements to be elaborated and distorted to engrossing effect. For example, the duo begin one section with a sample of the beat from Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It”, itself built off of a sample from Daft Punk’s “Technologic”. They mix the basic beat with the guitar bit from “Robot Rock” for a while, before dropping down into just the bare thudding bassline from “Touch It”, from which the group builds back up into the full version of “Technologic”. They use the sampled voice from “Technologic” as a bridge, slowing it down and speeding it up to build tension, before finally dropping the vocal refrain from “Around the World” into the mix just long enough for the audience to go crazy, and then segueing into the sinister “Television Rules the Nation” (which then morphs into a mashup of “Crescendolls” and “Too Long”). The show is filled with inspired juxtapositions like that.
And yet, despite the mixed-up nature of the show, the duo’s best individual tracks are still allowed to shine on their own. The majestic “Alive” emerges out of an intense mix of “Brainwasher” and “Rollin’ and Scratchin'”, sneaking up on the listener before they’re aware of what’s happening. “One More Time” is presented very much intact, and, just as on Discovery, segues into “Aerodynamic” — only, the vocal elements from “One More Time” don’t go away, merging with the latter song in order to create something stranger than either. I was also impressed with their transformation of “Harder Better Faster Stronger” into a straight-up acid track, achieved with the aid of “Burnin'” — that’s an effective enough mix that they could release it as a single.
I could go on, but I won’t. Just about every moment of the record is filled with something fun. It’s quite an amazing achievement — somehow managing to synthesize the best bits from throughout their entire career into something that becomes far more than merely the sum of its parts. If you were unhappy with the lack of old-school house on Discovery, or the lack of hooks on Human After All, you should find plenty to like here in the way they’ve essentially remixed their back catalog to good effect. This is everything good about Daft Punk, boiled to its essence with all the dross discarded. I almost can’t imagine what the show itself must have been like, because the mixing and mashing is at times so complex and subtle that I can’t imagine getting everything with just one exposure. This is a compulsively listenable album, through and through, and one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard. Put this on your shelf next to Live at Leeds and 101 — yeah, it’s that good.