Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
It’s a funny thing: Daft Punk are seen as legends today, a universally acclaimed and enormously influential duo that brought house, electro-funk and disco crashing back into the mainstream, spawning all sorts of imitators and admirers from across many genres. But that wasn’t always the case. Electronic aficionados always boosted the band, but the public and even some critics weren’t so convinced of the Frenchmen’s greatness at first. Of course, time was nothing but kind to Homework and Discovery (not so much Human After All because no one was kind to that one to begin with), and eight years later, after they drummed up a decent Tron soundtrack, after Kanye introduced the youngsters to the duo via his sample on “Stronger,” Daft Punk finally returned from the ether, masks and all. When they released Random Access Memories in late spring of 2013, it was the first time they dropped a record as bona fide, four-quadrant rock stars. That newfound status, plus the long gap since their last studio album, virtually ensured that the album would be a dizzying, grandly ambitious listen, and surely enough, RAM is Daft Punk’s most expansive, conceptual music yet. It’s also some of their best.
As the first single, “Get Lucky,” indicates with its disco stomp and slick Nile Rodgers guitar riff, this album is all about paying tribute to some of Daft Punk’s more vintage inspirations. That means ’80s pop, Eurodisco and early electronic dance music run rampant through the album, feeding off each other in a way that sounds unabashedly retro but unusually modern. Perhaps that last bit shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have been making the old sound new for years, yet this is their first attempt at deliberately stamping a date on the music they create, so it’s all the more impressive. Nowhere can this be seen better than on the album’s centerpiece, “Giorgio by Moroder.” As Giorgio Moroder explains his origins as a producer, Daft Punk lay a funky beat that eventually explodes into a swooshing synthesizer epic, a lovely testament to Moroder’s lasting influence on the dance music scene. This affectionate hero worship also brings a level of sincerity and warmth to the record, lending intimacy to the proceedings and grounding the songs no matter how outsized the productions. What remains remarkable about RAM—well, aside from the often exceptional songwriting and productions—is how it never settles for simple nostalgia: No matter how indebted to influences they are, “Get Lucky” and its sister track, “Lose Yourself To Dance,” are some of the best pop songs of 2013 because they sound so fresh and inventive.
As backwards-looking as the record is, Daft Punk are still trying out sounds and approaches that they’ve never committed to tape before, so part of that liveliness is due to a sense of exploration. Some of this has to do with the special guest turns: Yes, Giorgio Moroder, but also great turns from Pharrell Williams, a typically chipper Panda Bear on “Doin’ It Right” and Julian Casablancas, who shows up for the brooding, new-wave “Instant Crush,” which is good enough to make you wonder how much better Comedown Machine would have been if Daft Punk produced it. But most of the gleeful invention of RAM comes from how the duo play with structure and style, which reveals an unexpected influence—prog-rock. Take something like “Touch,” which shifts from unsettling, alien atmospherics to a touching Paul Williams ballad to a lavish disco cut to a spacy, psychedelic number and back again. It’s at once deeply felt and out of left field, more so than most anything else in their oeuvre. And when tracks like that are placed alongside catchy dance jams, songs that blend the orchestral and the synthetic, softly exhaling sobbing-robot pop and the interstellar-overdrive-cum-campy-sci-fi-soundtrack of “Contact,” all of the sudden, RAM has more in common with the high-concept, ambitious records of Pink Floyd and Genesis than groups like Air. True, none of this is ever quite as challenging as prog, but it certainly shares prog’s fascination with major statements, grandiose arrangements and over-the-top theatricality. Of course, since the most major statement being made here is “DANCE!,” it’s much more immediately satisfying. And “immediately satisfying” is the name of the game here, because even though Random Access Memories is too singular in Daft Punk’s catalogue to be considered quintessential, it’s their most accessible and one of their most rewarding.