It’s an inevitable excitement, the feeling of the blood rushing through my body as I go to press “play.” That fraction-of -a-second lag leaves enough time for one last ponderous burst of uncertainty, but as the opening chords to “Give Life Back To Music” fills my ears, a million instant reactions saturate my brain. Sorting through the mess, one idea sticks out above the rest, and it’s that things are different. After what has felt like light years of waiting, the ever-elusive Daft Punk have returned. The last time they released a full-fledged studio album was in 2005 with Human After All, which failed to live up to its groundbreaking and iconic predecessors. Fast forward through a monumental live album and a “not too shabby” soundtrack for TRON: Legacy, and the French duo has left us all chomping at the bit for their proper “comeback.” In true Daft Punk-style, Random Access Memories is hardly a return to form as much as it is a back-to-basics masterclass in dance music and beyond. The current state of “pop” is practically synonymous with dance with artists such as David Guetta and Calvin Harris becoming bonafide hit makers, while the likes of Skrillex and deadmau5 have found strange ways of appealing to the masses. EDM isn’t a cool alternative genre anymore, it’s in your face everywhere you look. However, Daft Punk have never been about fitting in as much as they have been about making music that challenges us. Their previous works haven’t been “press play at let the party begin,” but, instead, have provided pensive opportunities of euphoria and emotion… some of it club-ready, some of it simply captivating, all of it in a league of its own.
It’s difficult not to enter into Random Access Memories without any pretense, both good and bad. We all know what this duo is capable of, which is both an exciting notion and a disappointing one. Could they live up to this unbelievable hype? How will the record effect their legacy? Well, just take a quick glance over the credits and things start to fall into place instantly. Nile Rodgers? Giorgio Moroder? Pharrell? Paul Williams? Julian Casablancas? Panda Bear? Clearly these guys are swinging for the fence, but we all know that what looks good on paper doesn’t always sound good in our ears. For example, it goes without saying that Metallica and Lou Reed should have come up with something interesting, and look what we got (i.e. don’t ever listen to Lulu.) This brings me back to that moment when “Give Life Back To Music,” the appropriately-titled opening track to R.A.M., kicks in with an intro swirling with electric guitar, sparkling keys, and thundering drums. Things feel different, but we’re not quite sure where they will end up going yet until the groove kicks in. For anyone that’s heard (how could you miss it) the album’s lead single “Get Lucky,” the sound shouldn’t come as a total shock, but in many ways, it still feels unexpected. In fact, there’s nothing that particularly feels “Daft Punk” about it until the epic vocoder-effected vocals come in. Nile Rodgers’ iconic guitar is pleasantly abundant, which naturally drives the funky soul (dare I say it…) disco sound of the song. It is a total celebration of a time when dance music wasn’t a processed, lazy four-on-the-floor-driven, computer-crafted, “I can do this sitting on my sofa” genre, yet manages to still feel like it’s worthy of both club and radio today.
Track number two, “The Game Of Love,” abruptly winds things way down. Despite halting the momentum, it’s a refreshing reminder that this record is, in fact, a Daft Punk album, and not an exclusively collaborative effort. In reality, though, the track acts a pallet cleanser for the epic, and self-explanatory “Giorgio by Moroder,” that comes in to round out the opening trio. The song, a collaboration with Giorgio Moroder himself, acts as little more than a tribute to one of dance music’s pioneers, but the 9 minute journey is mesmerizing. In place of vocals, we hear Moroder walking us through his career in interview-form, while the music behind him illustrates his words. At first, it feels completely unconventional, but the track is really brilliant, with a searing climax worthy of “I Feel Love” and “Flashdance.” What really makes it shine, though, is how much it actually does feel like a Daft Punk track through to the core. Clearly Giorgio brings out something new in them, but they never manage to lose sight of their own sound, and the end result is a thought-provoking masterpiece that will have you dancing with your arms in the air by the end. Just like that, though, they change the pace right back up with a full-fleged ballad, “Within” that is driven by piano (yeah, you read right.) In fact, outside of vocals that feature their trademark vocoder sound, you would never guess it was Daft Punk.
Up next comes “Instant Crush,” featuring one of the most intriguing and exciting collaborators on the album, Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas. The track, really the first catchy moment on the record, ends up exceeding expectations. Julian’s voice is appropriately effected so as to fit in with the sound and theme of the album, but leaving it at a point that he is still recognizable. The music itself really meets in the middle between the two, with a healthy dosage of guitars that end up transitioning into a funky, dancy synth-fest. Outside of the vocals, once again, nothing feels processed or even all that “synthesized.” It’s the moment where the album really starts to hit its stride. By the time the second Nile Rodgers-collabo, and first Pharrell Williams feature, “Lose Yourself To Dance” comes in, we’re properly prepped for the ever-changing whirlwind that is Random Access Memories. The track leans far more towards Pharrell’s work than Nile’s (or even Daft Punk’s) sound with its rocky hip hop-edge and lead vocal that isn’t completely vocoder-ized, but still convincingly works. “Lose Yourself To Dance” is groovy and hypnotic, but still feels comfortable in the context of being birthed by the duo.
Then arrives the musical cornerstone of the record, which is fittingly stuck smack dab in the middle. In collaboration with Paul Williams (context: he wrote “Rainy Days And Mondays” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters,) “Touch” pretty much sums up the 1970s in its entirety. With a psychedelic guitar that sounds ripped right out of “Shaft,” disco climax, sweet melody, hippie sing-along, and powerfully frail vocal from Williams, the track ends up being so much more than just a time capsule because the duo refuses to let it go there. The authenticity of “Touch” is staggering, but they have the confidence to allow a modern twist to bleed through it. The track is so monumental that when “Get Lucky” comes in, you’ll already be reduced to putty in their robotic hands. That, of course, only sets the stage for an even better experience for an already incredible tune. The second Punk-Rogers-Williams collaboration is the orgasmic result of this kinky musical three-way that leaves us feeling like we all just “got lucky.” The track is the exact point where these three different acts intersect, and that place is truly magical. It’s disco, it’s funk, it’s modern EDM… and it glistens like a disco ball from start to finish. There’s really no way they would have been able to avoid not releasing it as the album’s first single; it’s far too good not let it suck everyone in.
Following up “Get Lucky” is certainly not an enviable position, but giving us a breather track in the form of “Beyond,” the second production collaboration with Paul Williams, was not a bad move. Especially when it, itself, is followed by the second of only two “solo” tracks on R.A.M., “Motherboard.” The pair of songs are more reflective, “thinking” tracks, that really leave room for the others to resonate a bit more. As a result, when the laid-back “Fragments Of Time” kicks in, it feels like a second-wind. The Todd Edwards-assisted track swirls with a synthesized organ and soulful, jazzy rock groove; it’s almost like some strange hybrid of the Doobie Brothers and the Bee Gees. Once again, we have a song that is so authentically rooted in something “classic,” that still ends up reading like a Daft Punk production, and just when you think Random Access Memories has nowhere left to go… well, joke’s on you. The first of the closing pair, “Doin’ It Right” features Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, a match made in electronic heaven. The song is understated, simple, and totally effective. It brings you down just enough to let the grand finale, “Contact” do its job. The closer is the exact kind of wrap-up anyone could hope for. It’s reflective and momentous, but is the only song on the album that actually feels like the Daft Punk we all know and love. It’s the perfect reminder of just how genius these guys are and have been for closing in on 20 years.
To sum it all up, Random Access Memories, so far, is 2013’s juggernaut. Calling it a “dance” album or labeling it as “EDM” in any way would be restrictive misnomers. The record goes so many places, folds in so many different sounds and ideas, and does it with such finesse and effortlessness, that any other act would crash and burn in an effort to recreate its glory. On the whole, there’s so little cohesiveness that the only common denominator (Daft Punk, themselves) ends up being the only element that allows the album to work as a consistent collection. Instead of being a mess, it ends up being completely brilliant, a true testament to the duo’s brilliance. As a result, he level of shame Random Access Memories puts all of their “peers” to is truly astonishing. To go out there and make a record that, in its original form, resembles absolutely nothing popular in the clubs and on radio when the public has finally caught up to cater to the kind of music they make is one of the most admirably audacious moves in recent years. Sure, Daft Punk still make dance music, but this album is far too multifaceted and dynamic to limit it to any one adjective like that. What we have here is real music; there’s not an ounce of laziness in sight, and they don’t manage to take a single “cheap shot” (listen to everything David Guetta to hear what I mean by that.) Random Access Memories lifts Daft Punk up on a new pedestal entirely, and all we can do now is sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.