Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’: Our Impulsive Reviews
Media Fire: SPIN's editors zip through an album in 320 seconds or less
Yesterday afternoon, Daft Punk’s fourth album began streaming on iTunes a week in advance of its Friday release date. Here, seven SPIN editors give hasty and completely impulsive opinions…
The good news: It could have been so much worse. It could have been New Coke, but, at the very least, they managed Cherry Coke — a new(!) improved(?) take on a classic flavor that most people love, generously sweetened. OK, maybe that’s not totally true, because do most people really love disco? But then, this isn’t really disco, is it? There’s plenty of disco affect in Nile Rodgers’ flickering guitar riffs, and “Giorgio by Moroder” purports to tell the history of disco, but, by and large, “disco” only exists here as a kind of Disneyfied artifact, a metonym for the swollen studio productions of yore that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo wanted to bring back. And that’s OK: No one said that Daft Punk had to write a companion album to Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around or Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day. (Nevertheless, given the ways that “disco” has been represented and caricatured over the past three-plus decades, and given that this will be many listeners’ first encounter with what they think is disco, it’s worth keeping our terms straight.) More prevalent is the aerated lite rock of Steely Dan and Alan Parsons Project — nothing wrong with that, by the way; the “Hey Nineteen”-channeling “Fragments of Time” is the album’s highlight — as well as stray echoes of more dubious influences, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” or even Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died in Your Arms.”
The thematic crux of the album is “Touch,” featuring Paul Williams, the composer of The Muppet Movie’s “Rainbow Connection.” This, too, is a song about making connections: “Touch, I remember touch / Pictures came with touch,” it begins, and later, “I need something more.” That’s the same sentiment that Daft Punk have emphasized in interview after interview: Frustrated with consumer technology, they decided they needed something more. And so, like the authenticity-seeking band in LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” who threw their computer out the window because they wanted to make something real, they set up in an old-school recording studio to make a record like the major labels used to make. (Hey, at least Daft Punk didn’t make a Yaz record.) Rockist? Definitely. Disingenuous? Maybe: Only someone totally out of touch with contemporary electronic music could think that it’s bereft of further possibilities. But that’s another argument for another time. The album has more depth if you take it as a kind of musical rendition of Pinocchio, about a sad puppet (or robot) that really just wanted to be a boy.
The album’s as bloated as the budgets of those AOR behemoths from the early 1980s, but there are flashes of brilliance, particularly the stretch through “Motherboard,” the Todd Edwards-featuring “Fragments of Time,” and “Doin’ It Right,” which GQ’s Zach Baron correctly identified as being, essentially, a Panda Bear song, albeit one set to the boomingest drum machine in the world. For listeners who really did need something more, they’ll probably find plenty of it here, and who knows; maybe the “Collaborators” videos will help them find their way to a world of music they didn’t know existed. I’ll give Daft Punk this much: Reading Paul Williams’ name in the credits sent me to YouTube to listen to “The Rainbow Connection” for the first time in 30-odd years, and before I knew it, I was weeping on my keyboard. Maybe I was looking for something more too.
Early Score: 7/10
This is neither a bad nor an especially disappointing record, but still, I’d like to suggest a better one: Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend. From 2001, the one after Moon Safari, nobody much gave a shit. I have always loved it, and today love it even more for being exactly as willful, bewildering, combative, mystique-puncturing, gently self-sabotaging, and utterly fascinating as Random Access Memories desires to be.
RAM is certainly all of those things, of course. It’s such a flabbergasting time for these dudes to decide to stop being themselves (or their earlier, culturally feted selves, at least), and though I distrust rockism even when practiced by robots, there is plenty to luxuriate in here. The overarching “John Martyn trapped in a Philip K. Dick novel” vibe is splendidly discomfiting. The Moroder thing is delightfully bonkers. I am shocked and delighted to learn that Julian Casablancas is human after all. “Get Lucky” is an irresistibly fizzy and facile blast of casino air. The Paul Williams thing is terrifyingly bonkers. “Fragments of Time” is the best Steely Dan song since “Hey Nineteen.” And so forth.
Yes, this will grow on me, perhaps immensely, but at first contact 10,000 Hz. Legend is the clear father to this record’s style: profoundly weird, gleefully schizophrenic, frantic and frivolous, toying with the same Do Androids Dream of the Electric Slide? robo-profundity, resoundingly thwarting casual fans yearning for another “Digital Love” the same way the glorious “How Does It Make You Feel?” flabbergasted dorm-room makeout champions counting on Air to cough up another “Sexy Boy.” I suspect this will work out better for Daft Punk than it did for Air.
Early Score: 7/10
This is one exceptionally well-engineered album! The guitars pop perfectly, the drums have a satisfying thwop, the bass is full and round. Even the vocoders sound warmer and more pliable than on previous Daft Punk albums. (“The Game of Love” is especially impressive in that regard.) I guess technical excellence should be expected from musicians who have strove their entire career to present themselves as cyborgian avatars of post-human electronic music. To what end, though? If joyful, danceable pop is what you’re hoping to access via RAM, the Pharrell-assisted “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” will set your circuits alight, as will “Doin’ It Right,” my favorite so far. The surprise here, and to me the challenge, is how much of the music seems designed for other, less visceral functions. “Touch” is an eight-minute potentially embarrassing cabaret melodrama that concludes on children cooing “Love is the answer.” “Giorgio by Moroder” morphs from a monologue to an inner-space voyage. In both cases, and on much of the rest of this immaculately produced, perfectly arranged, precisely played headphone album (BTW, I’m not sure hiring dexterous geniuses rather than using machines made DP’s music any more approachable), the music all sounds amazing. I’m just not clear if it does more than that — yet.
Early Score: 7/10
Christopher R. Weingarten
Bachelor-age space-pad music. Using icons like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder is a smokescreen — Daft Punk are actually harkening back to ’70s and ’80s figures that no one remembers, the records that no one bought. These guys always appreciated cheese (in the same way that chillwave does!), but Daft Punk are finally done subverting it and rethinking it and tweaking it and have just succumbed to moving their stuff in. Of course, in less skillful, less knowledgeable hands, an album of Toto-disco and EPCOT-rock would be written off as their Midnite Vultures and we’d be done with it. But these guys are making art from dollar-bin records while contemporary bands are paying top Discogs dollar on darkwave and library music. Maybe there’s going to be a rapper in two years that makes an album that sounds like this. Bonus: The real stars on this are the drummers: John Robinson (he played on Off the Wall, but more importantly Steve Windwood’s “Higher Love”) and Omar Hakim (he played with Miles Davis, but more importantly with Sting and Lionel Ritchie).
Early Score: 7/10
Is the statement enough? That’s the question to ask about Random Access Memories, the album in which Daft Punk go out of their way to sound nothing like Daft Punk. To be fair, as far as dressing up goes, this is still pretty good: They seamlessly inhabit the shimmering ’70s rock of Sunset Blvd., smearing glitter-streaked robot moans over rippling guitar and bass lines. Even judging it by an iTunes stream, everything here sounds as pristine as you would demand — but that’s a prerequisite, offering barely any points in Daft Punk’s favor. Is it enough that they’re merely playing off their own history, juking away from what we expect of a band that has all but minted a form of dance music? If this album were by anyone else, would it be laughed off the face of the Earth?
Perhaps, but the truth is that Daft Punk’s history haunts them here, because the best moments on Random Access Memories are when they allow themselves to be themselves: the swirling “Contact,” an all-climax closer that overtly mimics a space shuttle lifting off; Panda Bear’s “Doin’ It Right,” a warped take on disco that hooks effortlessly but nonetheless sounds out of place; the vocals of frequent collaborator Todd Edwards, who easily slips into the guise of Michael McDonald. In reviving the music of their childhood and challenging its audience by blurring the line between “cool” and “bad taste,” Daft Punk want to be men out of time, a band unmoored from the culture of “surf it, scroll it, pause it, click it” that they so adroitly critiqued on “Technologic.” But music can’t be a statement alone, and Random Access Memories is too often unmoving. Point taken, guys, but we see what you did there.
Early Score: 7/10
No, Daft Punk did not return to do their Roland Barthes-like riff on the maximalist Vegas tent twerk of Skrillex and the other EDM-ers they helped birth. Random Access Memories is a retromaniacal pastiche of ’70s pleasantries and that’s it. Yes, the slinking guitar riffs of Chic are ever-present (and some of them are even played by Nile Rodgers himself), and Giorgio Moroder’s transcendent arpeggiations appear, but slavishly capturing ’70s vibes seems rather easy, right? At least they helped fulfill Pharrell Williams’ since-the-2000s dream of approaching the wounded warbling of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (a whole album of “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky” would’ve been nice).
There is a contrarian thrill when Random Access Memories goes beyond rock-crit-approved disco legends and gets goofy and crate-digging, though: Fusion noodling nods to George Duke’s work with Billy Cobham on “Giorgio by Moroder”; the end of “Motherboard” apes the Italian crime movie soundtrack butt-prog of Guido and Maurizio De Angelis; the trollish, sincere-not-sincere balladry of 10cc is present on “The Game of Love” and “Within”; Paul Williams of Phantom of Paradise howls for eight minutes on “Touch.” Didn’t Justice’s hammy hard rockin’ Audio, Video, Disco already do this, though? And weren’t we all mad at that record?
Random Access Memories arrives critique-proof, protected by its refusal to do all the great Daft Punk things, and expecting us all to applaud that, or at least, LOLZ along with them. Perhaps there’s something um, punk, about this innovative duo giving the world a record of sprawled-out soft disco full-stop, but mostly, it just feels safe.
Early Score: 6/10
At first blush, RAM seems to be little more than a collection of bland disco rips offset on occasion by gooey atmosphere (but mostly glistening perfection), accompanied by those damned robot voices and played out on live instruments by, yes, Very Impressive Humans. But what does any of that mean if most of these tracks hit the dance floor without an ounce of the vim and vigor that modern producers regularly employ in their actual reinvention of house, electro and, yes, even disco. The mirrored ball was dropped royally here and the resulting fissures expose an interior of wet noodles, wah-wah guitar, and mid-tempo handclaps. The Panda Bear collab is just okay (though that “Motherboard” track is genuinely radical) and “Get Lucky” is easily the album’s apex of enjoyment. Lastly, GTFO with that 10-minute Moroder on Moroder fluff-fest. Go buy that new Phoenix album instead. Now there’s a band that knows how to turn feathers into flame.
Early score: 4/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 6.428