Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’ (Columbia)
Release Date: May 21, 2013
So the album opens like an overture to a Siegfried & Roy revue: smoke machines and lasers, spandex and glitter, roller-skaters and fire-breathers, blown-back hair, gold lamé, rhinestones, dancers, a bear — the whole nine — as meanwhile our hosts, digital magicians Thomas and Guy-Manuel, are lowered down on a sequin-clad, feather-trussed platform, smiles plastered across their cyborg visages, arms gesturing as if to say, in the gayest voice ever run through a vocoder, Boy have we got a show for you!
Costumes and crescendos, set pieces and guest stars, a loose concept, big budgets, and one helluva of a marketing campaign: If Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories sounds like a new Broadway musical, that’s because it might as well be.
Starlight Express, Jesus Christ Superstar, the lovechild of Bob Fosse and George Lucas: These are good touch points. Cameo, Sister Sledge, Kid Creole and the Coconuts: also fine. “I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the ’50s, the sounds of the ’60s, of the ’70s, and then have a sound of the future.” That’s Giorgio Moroder’s plainspoken, Schwarzenegger-accented recounting of his own musical history on the third track (“Giorgio by Moroder”), which none too subtly doubles as the record’s thesis: stylistically traverse a shit-ton of decades and genres, employ a whole bunch of vintage instruments, from mics all the way to guest vocalists (one of these dudes is in his seventies), vaguely nod in the direction of the “Future,” seemingly one in which Huggy Bear is president.
To wit: That opener, “Give Life Back to Music,” kicks off with bombastic, distorted-guitar punches before turning all funky-slinky, a total Prince move. “Fragments of Time” boasts the effortless rhythms and gentle choruses of Hall & Oates, while “Beyond” nicks the smooth groove of Michael MacDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near).” Hints of Goblin and Tangerine Dream show up on “Motherboard” and “Contact”; “Instant Crush” owes a debt to the Police. But, of course, Daft Punk’s most satisfying throwback is to themselves (the group is 20 freakin’ years old, after all): “Giorgio,” “Touch,” and the Pharrell-abetted “Get Lucky” all have moments of deep, locked-in grooves that will sate next year’s Coachella crowds whether Daft Punk actually show up in person or not.
The angle of your dangle, however, seems of secondary concern to our heroes. They’re primarily interested in evoking the golden age of studio excess, and indeed, the best part of RAM is the oddball cast of characters Daft Punk have assembled to execute this vision. Legendary producer, Chic mastermind, and Whoopi Goldberg impersonator Nile Rodgers joins forces with Paul Jackson, Jr. (who played on Thriller) for the tightest rhythm-guitar attack in recent memory, as “the most recorded drummer in history,” a.k.a., John “JR” Robinson (he played on Off the Wall), lays a concrete foundation beneath the proceedings.
Julian Casablancas, meanwhile, is still a douche, but “Instant Crush” at least proves Daft Punk know better than to let his flaccid croak hit tape without some serious vocoder massage. Not so with Panda Bear, whose double-tracked vocals on “Doin’ It Right” are as lysergic and endearing as ever. Then there is the great P. Williams — no, not Pharrell, but Paul — septuagenarian composer of the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays” and The Love Boat theme, here evoking Hedwig for “Touch,” widely and rightly acknowledged as the album’s centerpiece. Here’s why “Touch” is the album’s centerpiece: It sounds like the Muppets if Miss Piggy were Donna Summer and Kermit were Barry Gibb. Nodding to Cabaret and The Wiz, employing a children’s choir and a string section, spanning decades, moods, sonic textures, and varying degrees of decent musical judgment, “Touch” epitomizes RAM’s ambitions: grandiose to a fault, but hard not to love.
Indeed, the whole thing is so outsized and overwrought, so flailing and flamboyant, that you kind of have to grade it on a curve, alongside such other marvels of media spectacle as The Wall, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Avatar, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, etc. It belongs in that Musical Museum of WTF, maybe not front and center, but perhaps over by the rest rooms, next to the Use Your Illusions. It’s the increasingly rare widescreen collision of talent, resources, and ham-fisted quackery that we just don’t get very often these days, and it’s in that sense that Daft Punk best accomplish their goal of evoking all these bygone decades, the days of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s, Rumours and Thriller and Songs in the Key of Life, the days when making records literally drove people insane.
It’s not that RAM necessarily measures up to those classics, but as an homage, it’s perfectly enjoyable, which oddly enough brings us back to what these French hipsters have always done best. The commentariat are already wondering why this is such a departure, but it’s really not. Daft Punk’s whole shtick is ironic distance. They’re not robots, they’re “robots.” They “rock” and want you to “dance.” In that sense, this is absolutely in keeping with the band’s legacy. It is theater: absolutely sincere and totally fake.