Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Daft Punk: Human After All

Daft Punk
Human After All

Daft Punk’s long-awaited third studio album will likely be taken as a mixed bag. Fans will recognize the group’s technobsession (vocoders abound) and playful sense of humor (even simpler choruses: “We are human / After all / Thanks for comin’ / After all”), and new jacks will dig the veritable party thump of lead single, “Robot Rock”. However, a heavy dose of guitars, clever sampling, and shifting rhythms also make Human After All the group’s most challenging work to date. Where Homework fit snugly in the DJ’s crates, and Discovery condensed hipster ’80s nostalgia into a lucid statement, Human fuses the strengths of its predecessors and imbues further curiosity and exploration. The DP pair, Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, worked quickly, writing and recording the album in six weeks between September and November 2004, yet efficiently, as if in the spirit of their robotic doppelgangers. Human thus runs as smooth as a fresh processor, but requires repeat visits to dissect the program.

Human‘s principle asset is its coherence as an album. As if in response to Chuck D’s initial incredulity at the idea of a record being able to contain the all-night hip hop party, Daft Punk have succeeded again in condensing the post-post-acid house rave into a three quarters of an hour slab of wax/plastic/bytes. Like a finely selected mixtape, the album opens with the punchy title track, all pumping drums and quacking guitars. The choked tones and silly vocoders provide an instant hook, as the rhythm drives away. “The Prime Time of Your Life” drops the rhythm track out momentarily to create a sense of space and a pause for the listener, before pile-driving in a head-on collision with the rumbling “Robot Rock”. An early peak, “Rock’s” Rextastic (and equally simple) riffs and break-ready drums bring together the listeners and the dancers. “Steam Machine” chugs along like a ghost tugboat before cooling out on the moment of respite “Make Love.” And the same pacing is repeated in the second half of the album. The need for patience and variance in palette is indeed an acquired sense, found mostly in intuitive live performers. While Homem and Bangalter’s DJ work no doubt cultivates these qualities, the two exhibit them as virtual intuition; they work quickly and instinctively here, each track fitting in exactly where it should.

The track order maintains coherence due to consistent song structure. While each composition progresses in the logical and linear structure of most dance music — layering new sounds and ideas in increments of fours — the music moves at a pop pace. On “Human”, each motif runs in eight bar increments at an Olivia Newton-John power strut, thumping along so quickly it belies its five-minute length. At such a clip, individual sounds do on occasion become buried with another, which makes close listening a challenge. “Television Rules the Nation” rides along on a clean and cool set of Billie Jean kicks and snares, before the Sabbath chunk guitar riff clumsily arises like an atrophied undead corpse. Moog-y bass is dubbed over to double-track the melody before a harmonized melody adds a brighter tone. However, each new sound follows an already blocky melody so closely that a cursory listen easily passes over the distinction; the changes can easily be taken as, “It’s getting louder; now it’s getting softer”. The simplicity and predictability of such tracks also bring DP few accolades, but the duo deserves credit for its attention to space within such density: “Television’s” constant drums are simple and crisp enough to refresh the palette, as the guitars and vocals track in and out. In such a manner does the band maintain a sense of balance and consistency throughout Human.

These technical details ultimately play into the aesthetic of Daft Punk: using the efficiency of technology to characterize, not perfect, its distinctly modern music. Meaning, Daft Punk’s music embraces the times without using them as a crutch. Although the prominently featured guitars tie hook the music to an instantly recognizable past, each track is also filled with subtle audio cues for today’s listener. “Steam Machine” opens with chomping Miss Pac-Man sounds before stomping out a ragga meets four-on-the-floor beat, skating like a roller-derby hustler. Static and digital noise glitches pop in and out to add poly-rhythms, while old Roland beat machines meet Reznor-seething vocals. The texture of the song looks, feels, smells, and sounds like the modern age. As DJ Trident recently observed, “It’s like they’re sampling modem static”.

Similarly, the pair displays a mastery of resources as they squeeze, squirt, and sputter noise out like a slow upload on “The Prime Time of Your Life”. Rhythm is either implied or cut short for the first half, as the ephemeral noise that forms the body of the track, the ‘melody’, sounds like digitized static, pixilated sound bytes, bass tones constructed from individual pieces, but crumbling apart in one’s hands. The complete dismissal of explicit rhythm is a welcome change of pace from DP’s previous dance-ready work, granting the eventual Joan Jett swaggering rhythm a welcome entrance. The track is corrupted though, it can never quite get its pace down pat: the bass gets locked, fuzzing and looping like an overweight bumblebee bumping into a window; the drums pummel faster and faster, sputtering out at the closest approximation of infinity, each tom hit falling into each other until there is no distinction between the beats, just one long tone… The pinnacle of this vision is played out in the lyrically dense “Technologic”. Constructed equally from verbs implying technologic interfacing as it is drum machines, guitars, and vocoded melodies, the track cheerily skips through the discomforting parallel worlds of building finance models — “Buy it, use it, break it, fix it, trash it, change it, melt, upgrade it / Charge it, pawn it, zoom it, press it, snap it, work it, quick, erase it” — and making music — “Plug it, play it, burn it, rip it, drag and drop it, zip, unzip it / Lock it, fill it, curl it, find it, view it, curl and jam unlock it”. Be it through pen, instrumentation, or even voice (always filtered), Daft Punk completely incorporates its surroundings, finding harmonies within clashes, melody within mistakes, songs amidst the litter we increasingly produce.

Daft Punk’s use of contemporary sound cues makes its music resonate most in the modern age; the imperfection of perfection. While the duo certainly carries a welcome sense of humor with its work, its intent is not as ironic as many note, but to also jam the senses. Daft Punk confronts our idea of how modern innovations can both co-opt and support outdated conceptions of “real” music. The end result on Human is structurally and technically impressive, though at times aesthetically more curious than intriguing. “Robot Rock” bustles and rocks off, but if there were a Ghostface verse? Some next level shit. “The Brainwasher” has tested purple off the press/net junkie EPT, but also connotes images of leather-clad robots donning chaps, rocking flying Vs, and fisting sequencers. And the interlude/pause piece “Make Love” is hardly the Taster’s Choice for Dr. Knockboot, but cozy and snuggly enough for the Ladie’s Man. Nevertheless, the scope of growth for Daft Punk has widened once again. While the current music fanbase continues to feed on itself and its past rabidly, DP continues to rock forward, ne’er scurred.

RATING 7 / 10