Matt Jones gives Daft Punk’s new album 4 stars
In today’s world of ‘instant access’ culture, where within five minutes you can watch virtually any film or TV show online, stream virtually any song via Spotify and Youtube, or download virtually any track free of charge, it is rare that the release of a music album is considered a real cultural event. And yet, it’s hard to remember the last time there has been so much hype and anticipation surrounding an album release as there has been with the product of Daft Punk’s fourth foray into the studio: Random Access Memories.
OK, it can’t be denied that a lot of that has to with the expert manner in which RAM has been marketed. The slow and strategic release of information about the album in drips and drabs, the series of videos, known as The Collaborators, released one after another on YouTube that gave an insight into the production of the album and gave a little taster of the album from lead single ‘Get Lucky’.
The explanation behind this marketing approach though, with the French electronic duo drawing inspiration from the ‘rollout nature’ of advertising campaigns of old, is indicative of the theme and concept of the album as a whole. For Random Access Memories is an album that is concerned with capturing the best elements of music’s past, specifically the disco and west coast vibes of the late 1970s, in order to demonstrate that within the realm of popular dance music there can be an alternative to what I will call ‘chart house’. As Nile Rogers himself put it, with RAM, Daft Punk “went back to move forward.” For regimented synthesizing, read use of live instruments. For easy chart-friendly collaborations read partnerships with musicians coming from areas as diverse as indie rock, disco and musical theatre.
With Random Access Memories, Daft Punk bring the groove back into dance music. This becomes immediately evident with the album’s opening track- ‘Give Life Back to Music’ as Daft Punk float vocoded vocals on top of John ‘JR’ Robinson’s drumming and Nile Roger’s infectious guitar-playing. Indeed, the record’s big disco moments feature Rogers on guitar – ‘Get Lucky’ and the other track with Pharrell Williams on the album – ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’, definitely have a Chic-esque sheen about them. ‘Fragments of Time’, featuring Todd Edwards, maintains that element of groove, albeit with a different twist. ‘Fragments of Time’ is very west coast, very ‘80s, more Billy Joel than Billie Jean. With a catchy chorus guaranteed to get stuck in your head after a few listens, it is perhaps, alongside ‘Get Lucky’, the album’s stand-out ‘pop’ moment.
Daft Punk do not limit themselves to the dancefloor sound on RAM. Among the many contemplative and melancholic tracks on this album, two stand for me in particular: ‘Doin’ It Right’ featuring Panda Bear and ‘Instant Crush’ featuring Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. The use of vocoded vocals on these tracks is masterful, it is almost as if Daft Punk are railing against the current tendency in pop to make human voices sound robotic by making robotic voices sound intensely human.
The highlight of the album for me though, is the instrumental track that closes the record, a track with its head in the cosmos, the epic crescendo that is ‘Contact’. The track begins with a recording from the Apollo 17 mission, before launching into a delicious blend of orchestral and synth riffs set against the backdrop of frenetic drumming, and climaxing with the sound of a rocket leaving the planet’s orbit. Even without the context of the rest of the record this track would be a landmark in experimentation and ingenuity, but it is made all the more powerful if one considers the thinly-veiled message that Daft Punk are trying to send out here: challenge yourself to experiment with a more organic sound – give life back to music, if you will – and the sky truly is the limit.
The reason why I have decided not to award Random Access Memories five stars is that there are a few lightweight tracks on the album – notably ‘The Game of Love’, ‘Beyond’ and ‘Touch’, where Paul William’s vocals for me would have been best left in the realm of Disney films. It is also not a record that immediately seizes you by the scruff of the neck; indeed it takes time to appreciate the ingenuity on offer. However, perhaps that fact in itself helps explain why the concept of the album really works. The message it sends us is both brave and refreshing: music is something that should be both made and consumed in a considered, immersive, and above all, soulful way. In that respect Random Access Memories is the very antithesis of ‘instant access’ culture.