Over the last two months you'd be forgiven for thinking the second coming was occurring via a pair of robots. Daft Punk are French duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. They are one of the key bands in popularizing the electronic dance music (EDM) movement of the late nineties and have just put out their first studio album in seven years: Random Access Memories.
With a surprise announcement at this year's Coachella festival, a series of ominous and (initially) wordless gold and black billboards, and a string of interviews in which the duo intimate they're out to save electronic music from a bleak homogenized future- the ground swell of expectation and excitement around the release has been absolutely staggering.
Allow me to get this out of the way: I'm not a lover of the nu-disco style Daft Punk introduced on their 2001 breakthrough album Discovery. Don't get me wrong, I always thought the sound was clean and well constructed- but never commanding your attention in the way great dance music should. Ironically my favorite Daft Punk album is Human After All, the release which most fans of the band felt was a dramatic step backwards in quality. I found there was a simple but brutal elegance in the machine heavy beats that grabbed you by the throat in a way that Discovery never quite managed for me. Now we have Random Access Memories, a record torn between its borderline fetishistic love of seventies and eighties soft rock via disco aesthetics and its use of exploratory soundscapes which defy easy categorization.
When the band allow themselves to experiment with this template, something which makes up around half of the album, there are moments of absolute magic. Centrepiece 'Touch' opens with abstract synth burbles which feel like you're floating in amniotic fluid amongst the stars for two minutes before dropping into soft brushed organs and the crisp vocals of Paul Williams. Over the course of the song's remaining six minutes it moves through motown trumpets, barbershop pianos, orchestral swells, chill wave robo-choruses and (yes) even disco sections. It's a kaleidoscope of sounds and textures that feels like a mini album unto itself. Indeed that may have been what Daft Punk were hoping to achieve with the track- a fulcrum sun around which the rest of the solar system of songs float. Instead it just makes you want a full album which takes as many risks as 'Touch' does.
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Fortunately the duo don't always need a near ten minute canvas to show off the diverse end of their musical chops. 'Instant Crush' featuring vocals from Julian Casablancas is all neon flashes and rain with its Daftian take on mid 80's synth rock. The largely instrumental 'Motherboard' moves from drums which sound like they're gently turning inside out alongside gentle acoustic guitars and pan pipes to the sound of digital sponges being wrung out over the top of a jungle. Best of all is the propulsive 'Doin' It Right,' a duet between robotic vocal samples and Panda Bear's own gentle vocal harmonies- underpinned by a less-is-more 808 drum and bass beat.
At its worst the divergent tone feels like a bait and switch routine. Take opener 'Give Life Back to Music.' The song wheels back and forth between bombastically symphonic synth rock stings over to the blander beats of thudding disco bass and wocka-wocka guitars. The effect is like Space Dracula descending from the heavens in a cloud of techniclour smoke, only to have him begin impersonating John Travolta out of Saturday Night Fever as soon as he hits the ground. It becomes very clear as the album continues that disco stylings (possibly brought on by the harsh reaction to Human After All) are Daft Punk's comfort zone. Around half of the record, vocoder drenched vocals aside, would have happily sat alongside various releases from the late seventies and early eighties. This affect is magnified by a tour-de-force guest list of session musicians and producers from the period including Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams and Giorgio Moroder. These are all gargantuanly talented individuals who always make slick pop music- it's just that slick pop music doesn't always make compelling listening.
It's worth saying that not all of the songs which tread in the nu-disco direction are terrible pieces of work. Heck, none of the songs are terrible- they're just so bland they wrapped all they way back around to offensive. Tracks like lead single 'Get Lucky' and 'Lose Yourself to Dance' (both featuring the vocals of Pharrel Williams) are solid dance-funk work outs, but even they suffer from a milquetoast effect. You've heard these musical skeletons before, whether twelve years ago on Discovery or thirty years ago on a bevy of other records.
It's odd because part of what the band had moved away from for this release was the use of samples. Where as before they would have taken a Nile Rodgers guitar lick and repurposed it for their needs, the band now can just get Rodgers into a studio and have him lay down their dream sample. I'm certain this made a difference to the mentality of the band while creating the work, but to an average listener it doesn't really change anything. Either way we get to hear a recorded playback of Rodgers on guitar in the studio. Whether or not he recorded the lick for the actual song doesn't make much difference in the final presentation.
Chiefly the album suffers from a crushing weight of self indulgence. I don't want to hear Giorgio Moroder go on about his early days in 'ze discotheques' for two minutes out of a nine minute song, and I'm a music journalist- it doesn't get much more telling than that. We definitely don't need to hear Daft Punk attempt to reinvent the sounds of the seventies for the umpteenth time (you may well be playing one song and not notice when you've accidentally skipped to another because they sound that similar).
So in the end, it's not the messianic release that Daft Punk had been talking up. There are undeniable moments of genius and the entire package is one well oiled and glistening machine, but too much time is spent on making music you suspect Banglater and Homem-Christo wanted to hear, not what they felt their audience actually wanted to hear. They may believe they need to save electronic music from itself, but from this evidence I'm not certain many would agree that looking into the past is the best way for us to move forward.
Random Access Memories is out May 20th.
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