Are machines imparted with the human characteristics of their creators, or are we destined to adopt theirs? People are prone to exchanging pleasantries with Siri, calling the Internet bad names when it’s slow, and grieving when our computers’ hard drives crash. But we’re just as apt to reverse-anthropomorphize ourselves — multitasking, wishing we had more “cycles,” and thinking of our brains as “hardwired” for particular behaviors. As avid technologists trying to make a living in the 21st century, musicians Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo experience this conundrum just like anyone else; they work with computer software, have a healthy fear of technology, and try not to let it prevent them from having some semblance of a private life.
But that’s where the similarities between the French duo and the rest of us end, you see, because your day job is not being in Daft Punk. You are not a robot who gets to wear sequined smoking jackets courtesy of St. Laurent, plays to 40,000 people in front of a glowing, four-story pyramid, and is programmed for one purpose — bringing the human soul back into electronic dance music. You don’t need to answer silly questions about how a machine might think when you are one. The only thing you need to concentrate on is making sure that everyone within earshot is feeling da funk.
The clever naming of Daft Punk’s fourth album simultaneously romanticizes the duo’s recollection of their many musical influences and offers a nod to a key technological invention that revolutionized computing back in the 1940’s — like Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s music, it’s both retro and futuristic at once. In a year marked by high-profile music releases from big-name indie rock and pop artists (Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Phoenix, and the National), Random Access Memories is the most eagerly anticipated and scrutinized album of 2013; it’s also likely the best, though not for the reasons you might expect.
By going analog and stressing virtuosic musicianship over technological trend-setting, Daft Punk’s turn their reputation as electronic music trailblazers on its head while retaining the pioneering spirit and love for dance music that has always defined their best work. Random Access Memories is an anti-anachronism — a record so indebted to and reverent of the past, that even its existence today feels like an aberration. It is Daft Punk’s crowning achievement and the record their career will come to be defined by, which is astonishing considering how crucial albums like Homework and Discovery were for demolishing the boundaries between pop and rock music.
Most of the stories surrounding the creation of Random Access Memories are documented ad nauseum by now, but a brief recounting is required for context. In order to match their desire to emulate the warm, organic sound of music from the disco era, Daft Punk swore off sampling and electronics, and instead committed to using only live instrumentation on RAM. Recordings began in 2008, but the duo was forced to scrap a chunk of work after realizing that, as musicians, they were unable “to hold a groove the way (they) wanted for more than eight or 16 bars.” They had tremendous songwriting ideas, but were unable to execute on them.
Confronted with their own human limitations yet refusing to turn to technology, Bangalter and De Homem-Christo sought the services of expert session musicians from the 70’s and 80’s to help achieve their artistic vision. They also initiated individual collaborative sessions with several hand-picked musical peers that included (among others) Giorgio Moroder, Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, Neptunes’ producer/singer Pharrell Williams, and Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear). Through persistence and painstaking labor, Random Access Memories slowly began to take shape.
As Nile Rogers is fond of remarking, Daft Punk “went back to go forward” on RAM, but it wasn’t just in their style of playing and recording. Daft Punk specifically chose to release Random Access Memories on storied industry heavyweight Columbia Records who promoted the album through roadside billboards, SNL commercials spots featuring 15 second teasers of some unnamed, heavily-vocoded chorus that the gremlins of the internet affectionately christened “Mexican Monkey”, and a buzz-generating video premiere of the now identifiable track (“Get Lucky”) weeks later at Coachella.
Each week, Columbia released a new internet video episode of “The Collaborators,” an eight part series of interviews with the artists who had worked with Daft Punk on Random Access Memories. The videos served two purposes (both brilliantly): mythologizing Random Access Memories before anyone had even heard the album and providing rich anecdotal fodder for fans to further promote the album’s excellence. It was a simple, yet shrewd marketing concept — other musicians (A-listers, in fact) were being interviewed for Daft Punk, allowing the silent duo to grow in stature with their mysterious aura intact. Without even knowing it, we had all become their hype men.
Although it’s analog recording process, live instrumentation, and stylistic eclecticism initially conspired to disappoint some internet insta-critics (especially ones who absorbed RAM via iTunes streams over shitty laptop speakers), it’s those very same qualities that grant RAM deep textures and tremendous staying power. It sounds fantastic both played at full volume (ask Bangalter and De Homem-Christo, who blew out a set of studio speakers during the playback of thunderous album closer “Contact”) and through headphones, where you immediately notice the enormous care that the duo has invested in these songs. In a genre defined by cut, copy, and paste aesthetics, Random Access Memories is Daft Punk’s hand written love letter to dance music, gorgeously penned in a sprawling sonic cursive. It nimbly hop-scotches through forty years of history, connecting the squares of electro pop, funk, disco, Philly soul, house, and techno into one dazzling, modern compendium.
“Giorgio by Moroder” pays loving tribute to the icy, italo-disco sounds of the the groundbreaking dance pioneer; “Beyond” features a laid back, one-arm-out-the-window guitar chirp that harkens back to Warren G. ‘s “Regulate” and by extension Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin'” — both emblematic of the chilled-out, barbituate-ridden West Coast lifestyle Daft Punk seeks to embody with RAM. “Lose Yourself to Dance” is a pure club banger — over a slinky, four on the floor thump and a relentlessly vocoded “Come on/ Come on/ Come on/ Come on,” Pharrell Williams offers his services to a girl on the dance floor: “Here, take my shirt and just go ahead and wipe up all the sweat” — which would presumably leave her still glistening and him shirtless — a good approximation of the how Daft Punk want this record to make you feel. Every note feels immaculately spaced yet luxurious in an almost filthy way, the kind of sound you can only get by slaving over an album for five years.
Daft Punk enlisted classical pianist Chilly Gonzales to construct a crucial melodic key change inside fourth track “Within” as the bridge between the album’s two sections (every song before the juncture is played in A minor and every song afterwards is in B flat). As a result, the album’s first quarter has more a intellectual, pensive slant, while the hungrier, more ecstatic tracks come later — like a dream date with a Stanford University grad whose hiding a set of sexy, washboard abs. Similiarly, the crowd-pleasing climax of “Touch” is sandwiched inside a cerebral, unorthodox soliloquy from famed song-writer Paul Williams, which is in turn bookended by “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky,” the album’s two most libidinous tracks. Bangalter and De Homem-Christo know how to make music for the masses without compromising their eclectic tendencies or creative independence.
At nearly 75 minutes, RAM can come across as overwrought, but given that Daft Punk pay homage to four decades of dance music, excess comes with the territory. Those who complain that RAM’s referential tendencies fail to live up to the revolutionary vision offered by Discovery in 2000 are likely missing the point. Whatever the tools or technology, dance music is about those moments that grant us transcendence — the ones where we can literally lose ourselves — and Random Access Memories teems with them.
There’s the moment on “Motherboard” where the snares, maracas, and glacial synths hit upon an “Electrobank”-like grind and shuffle, or the early jaw-dropping climax of album centerpiece “Touch” where live drums, funk guitars, brass, woodwinds, and a vocal choir deliver a full sixty seconds of prolonged melodic ecstasy, or the 3:05 mark of “Fragments in Time” where house music producer Todd Edwards’ ode to working with the French duo accelerates from Steely Dan/80’s yacht-rock cruise control into electro-pop engine-revving reminiscent of “Digital Love” — the first time I heard the tambourines and that “whoa-whoa-whoa” vocoder hook take off over the “Greatest American Hero”-style synths, it was so unexpectedly blissful that I actually laughed aloud.
Stories suggest that the joy found in listening to this music was equally infectious for those who creating it. Edwards literally moved from New Jersey to California to hold onto the ephemeral West Coast vibes that he and Daft Punk bottled on “Fragments in Time.” Nile Rodgers, a guy whose legendary work with Chic, Bowie and Madonna has never made him shy about applauding his own abilities (he refers to himself in 3rd person several times during his interview), remarked that working with Daft Punk inspired him “to go to another level.” The unexpected, 80’s inclinations of the Strokes’ Comedown Machine makes a lot of sense now when you consider Julian Casablancas had been working with Daft Punk on the New-Wavey “Instant Crush.”
On songs like “Give Life Back to Music” and “Lose Yourself to Dance,” Daft Punk refer to their work almost like it’s an organic, living entity — a philosophy seconded by Pharrell when he was asked to describe “Get Lucky.” Wistfully, he said it reminded him of an island with peach-colored sunsets “…where it was forever four in the morning (and) the music was as alive as the air was.” That two guys masquerading as robots are making music this vibrant is part of what makes Random Access Memories so marvelous.
At one point during his Collaborators interview, Pharrell Williams gives props to Daft Punk with such deadpan humor that you’d swear he was utterly serious: “They’re not bound by time and space.” he says solemnly. “It’s like their music is in the mid 70’s and early 80’s of a different universe and dimension. Not of this one.” When asked where they should go from here, Pharrell simply responds with one word: “Up.” More likely, it will be in yet another direction we won’t predict — Random Access Memories follows the path of dance music’s evolution as it extends both outward and back upon itself in wide looping spirals, from Giorgio Moroder to Donna Summer to Chic to David Bowie to the Cars to the Strokes to Phoenix to Daft Punk and all the way back again to Moroder.
It’s as if Bangalter and De Homem-Christo are extending their octopus arms out toward all the genres from which they’ve sprung (disco, funk, house, etc.) and have in some part stemmed from them (indie electro, chillwave, microhouse, etc.) and are gathering them back into one rich, kaleidoscopic center — themselves. It’s a monumental act of confidence that requires more devotion and ingenuity than ordinary men/robots can muster. Pharrell again says it best: “We’re lucky they hang out on the planet. They could just get back on the spaceship that brought them here and go and leave us. But they’re gracious. They’re nice robots. They chose to stay.” Fans who were expecting music not of this earth will find something different but no less remarkable — music not of this time or place. And that, in its own way, is perfect.