Random Access Memories
, May 28th, 2013 05:46
For those that saw it six years ago, Daft Punk's Alive tour has become the stuff of legend. The duo's audio visual pyramid created a template for the electronic music live show that many have since tried to emulate to varying degrees of success since – Etienne De Crecy has his cube, Amon Tobin has his ISAM, Scuba has his… fluorescent tubing. But despite the high concept nature of the show, it was never about the spectacle – it was about togetherness.
The Alive show felt like the logical culmination of Daft Punk's career to date. Emerging in the post-rave era of the superstar DJ, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo opted out of the public eye, and in their own way subverted the chart dance of the time, taking it back to a more neutral space. The attention may have been on the men wearing robot masks, but the men behind them wasn't important – what mattered was the shared experience of the dance. The Alive show's ten minute finale was the logical culmination of this. The message delivered was about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the knees - with DJ Falcon and Bangalter's 'Together' accompanied by images of a thousand smiling faces of all ages and from all nations beaming from the pyramid itself - but there wasn't one person who didn't go home from that show feeling a little bit better about the world.
Random Access Memories, Daft Punk's first studio album in eight years, stands in direct opposition to everything that moment six years ago seemed to represent. Much has been made of how this album is Daft Punk's attempt to recreate a kind of 70s studio album experience with high profile guest spots and classic recording techniques. On that level, it more than succeeds, but it also draws a line under the myth of Daft Punk. Where the duo were once a pair of unknowable intergalactic travellers onto which we were largely free to project anything, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo's decision to talk at length about this album and subject it to a lengthy marketing process has effectively transferred their creations out of a fictional space into the relative banality of a studio setting, where endless cash is thrown at celebrity cameos and the obsessive tweaking of a vocoder setting.
Which is not to say that these contributions are without their merits. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers' appearances together provide the album's high points: for obvious reasons 'Get Lucky' will rightly go down as one of the greatest and likely most enduring pop songs of the decade, while 'Lose Yourself To Dance' is perhaps better still, with Rodgers channeling his contribution to David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' while Williams lays down a soulful falsetto worthy of Off The Wall era Michael Jackson. Panda Bear's appearance is equally brilliant, acting as perfect human foil to the same kind of vocoder gymnastics on 'Doin It Right' that made 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' one of the duo's most enduring tracks. As great as these tracks are though, it's difficult to shake the feeling that they just aren't really Daft Punk. Although the duo have never been shy of using guests on their albums – Romanthony a prime example – their contributions were never allowed to overshadow the songs themselves in the way they do here.
The other spots come across as ill-judged at best, and supremely self-indulgent at worst. It can only be assumed that 'Instant Crush' is supposed to be a vague attempt at paying tribute to the soft synth rock of Phoenix, but the presence of Julian Casablancas just makes it sound as if someone had put The Strokes' disinterested third album through a cheap Korg vocoder, while 'Touch', which features Paul Williams, is obviously meant as a grandiose, theatrical centerpiece, but it's incredibly difficult to get past just how much it sounds like a number from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Todd Edwards, although a fantastic producer, is not a fantastic vocalist, as his strained attempt at drivetime 80s soul on 'Fragments Of Time' shows. The most disappointing by far is Giorgio Moroder's monologue on 'Giorgio By Moroder', a track with a self-reflexively smug Italo hook that tries to pay homage to his legacy but ultimately reduces his involvement in the album to the equivalent of a cheap celebrity sitcom cameo.
These moments may provide extremes, but at least they inspire some kind of emotional response. The worst sections of the album are the relentlessly smooth synth prog tracks that fill the gaps in between. Although the first 17 seconds of opener 'Give Life Back To Music' offers the kind of orchestral crescendo that sets the pulse racing, it soon sinks in to a limp groove that's less Chic, and more like a hideous combination of Jean-Michel Jarre and Yes. 'The Game Of Love' is worse, a morose piece of proto-Balearica with some wholly unconvincing "sad robot" vocals.
The rest is less amusingly bad and just lazy; 'Motherboard' sounds like the duo employed Steve Reich to rip off Sebastien Tellier's 'La Ritournelle', and 'Beyond' is the kind of narcoleptic lounge you've forgotten before it's even finished. Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect that Random Access Memories should come anywhere near scaling the heights of the 2007 live show that basically redeemed the atrocity that was Human After All, but to find Bangalter and de Homem-Christo indulging in all the most horizontal aspects of their sound is more than a little disheartening.
The rousing organ chords and high resolution arpeggio of closing track 'Contact' provide the only moment where it feels as if the duo display that indefinable retro-futurism that once made their music so unique. These qualities are effectively pushed to the background throughout the rest of the album, and manifest themselves only in robot backing vocals for a cast of rotating characters. Given all the strange narratives Daft Punk have engaged in over the years – the interstellar story of Discovery, the quest of two robots to become human in the Electroma film - to find out that they're just two middle aged men indulging their studio fantasies on planet Earth somewhat ruins their message of unity.