Listen to This!

05.21.13

Daft Punk Goes Back to the Future With ‘Random Access Memories’

Why making a self-indulgent disco record is the most punk-rock thing the French duo could have done. By Tricia Romano.

When the long-awaited fourth Daft Punk studio record was streamed last week after months of tantalizing teases and leaks, much of the world collectively yawned. Two French men had spent untold amounts of money and several years in the studio and they came out with…a chilled out disco record?

The world wanted to know: Where is the anthem, that track made for the peak hour on the dance floor that Daft Punk is so good at creating? The closest you’ll get on Random Access Memories is the addictive, funky first single “Get Lucky,” and it’s pretty soft by Daft Punk standards.

But perhaps the most punk rock thing that the French house duo could have done during this era of electronic dance music, now dubbed EDM—when nightclub dance floors are ruled by Skrillex’s atonal screeches—is to release a record that’s so defiantly musical. With Random Access Memories, which is on track to be No. 1 on the Billboard 100 chart next week with between 200,000 and 300,000 sales in its debut frame, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have made an album of songs—with pop, soft rock, prog rock, jazz, and disco flourishes—made for radio, not a rave.

As Bangalter told The New York Times, “It’s like we’re running on a highway going the opposite direction to everybody else.”

Instead of creating a record that would have been a centerpiece for EDM’s megaclubs and mega DJs, they’ve completely changed course. Random Access Memories is a record to listen to while laying by the pool on a lazy summer day, a record you want to hear as you drive around the city as the sun sets, or what you want playing after a long night when the sun’s just coming up. It has overtones of early 90s trancey San Francisco breakbeat house, a sound made famous by the Hardkiss Brothers and Wicked Crew. In other words, it’s perfect come-down music.

Video screenshot

The record pivots away from the very things Daft Punk helped create: monster-sized live shows with elaborate stage productions. The duo’s 2006 Coachella set featured the two clad in robot helmets and leather jackets atop a giant pyramid playing one monster hit after another. Goodbye to all that.

And to make a fully realized thematic album recorded with live musicians instead of digital samples, filled with actual verse-chorus-verse songs instead of DJ tracks, is the ultimate middle finger to dance music purists who came of age during the DJ-worshipping 90s. Songs! It’s practically sacrilege.

The backlash from the dance music critics and cognoscenti has been neck-snapping. Instant reactions ranging from the puzzled (New Yorker) to the confused (Diplo). A few (Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly), genuinely like it.

Back when mixing two records was an art form not automated by computer programs, 12-inch records served as DJ tools and were not necessarily meant to be listened to on their own from start to finish. It’s one of the reasons rock fans had such a hard time understanding techno’s particular brilliance; without a DJ mixing the records, there was no context. Much of Daft Punk’s oeuvre, especially Homework and, to a lesser extent, Discovery, are arguably less albums than collections of really good singles (and some filler) tied together by a singular sound.

By the end, you’ve had a rollercoaster of a sonic experience. And that’s just one tune.

Songs—and perhaps a bit of wicked smart marketing—are also why Daft Punk might actually finally be No. 1 in America. Dance music’s purveyors have long snubbed things like bridges and choruses and formal song structures that would have made the music friendly for radio. But this (and the lack of rock-star-sized personalities) is also the reason why “electronica” —as it was so ignorantly dubbed by the U.S. press during the 90s—never made it really big on American radio outside of a few stray hits (Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank,” and the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” being two of the few exceptions). It’s no accident that one of the most successful electronic musicians of the 90s was Moby, whose record Play relied heavily on memorable samples from the field recordings of Alan Lomax.

Daft Punk has always known how to craft an unbelievable hook; an entire set of their singles will spoil you for earworms. “Around the World,” “Technologic,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” “One More Time,” “Da Funk,” and their hit under the Stardust moniker, “Music Sounds Better With You,” all do one thing, but they do it really, really well. They are crack for the ears. The duo has replicated this formula with diminishing returns—the last one, Humans After All, being the dud. To do so again would have rendered them a (very catchy) one-trick pony.

Bangalter and de Homem-Christo clearly heard the saying that you should work with people who are better than you to learn and improve, so they sent themselves to their own private recording school. They went back to the future, and collaborated with innovators and originators of the genre, such as Giorgio Moroder (who was the genius behind Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and “Love to Love You Baby”), Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and a few contemporaries, including Pharrell, The Strokes’ lead singer Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear, vocalist Paul Williams, and house producer Todd Edwards. With an attention to detail bordering on OCD, they laid down tracks at historical studios like Electric Lady in New York (built by Jimi Hendrix) and Capitol Studios in Los Angeles; recorded live drums by session musicians who worked with Quincy Jones; worked with a string orchestra; and used a multitude of mics to capture Moroder’s first-person narration.

The results are imperfect, messy, sprawling, and yet, for much of it, beautiful and endlessly listenable. There are shades of Use Your Illusion, Guns’N’Roses’ epic, overly ambitious sophomore record, in their methodology and results (think “November Rain”). Is it really necessary for a song to be eight minutes long with so many different segues and jarring changes that it’s really four songs in one? No, but it’s certainly a more interesting adventure listening to “Touch”—the overwrought, yet fascinating disco ballad featuring king of schmaltz Paul Williams—than it is playing “Robot Rock” from Human After All. You’ll change your mind about “Touch” four or five times—thinking you hate one section, but love the next; by the end, you’ve had a rollercoaster of a sonic experience. And that’s just one tune.

Daft Punk fares better when playing it straight: The single “Get Lucky” (which has reached No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, making it the group’s biggest hit ever, and is still climbing) is a perfect reconstruction of disco’s best attributes and smartly makes judicious use of their calling card—those groovy robot vocals—making the chorus even more tantalizing. You hear it and get chills: “The remixes of this are going to be so good.

The nine-minute disco homage to Moroder, “Giorgio By Moroder” featuring the Italian disco legend telling his life story, is a synth-fueled orgy of shimmying arpeggios that might be too on-the-nose, but it also serves as a history lesson for the new generation of electronic music fans, many of who probably have no idea who Moroder is and think Skrillex invented everything. It’s a little patronizing, but we’re all older now.

When not retracing disco’s steps, Daft Punk indulges in some of the same terrain last favored by the Doobie Brothers and Michael McDonald on “Beyond” and “Fragments of Time.” This fact will make you feel very weird when you consider it’s made by a duo once considered to be among the most future-thinking producers of dance music.

At its core, Random Access Memories is an exercise in nostalgia—in direct opposition to electronic music’s modus operandi. Dance music has long hung its hat on the concept that every new record has to produce a fresh sound or move the music forward. For a while, if you didn’t invent a new genre you were basically a failure. They may not be changing the future of music, but Daft Punk have earned the right to not give a fuck.