For as much as ‘Random Access Memories’ is being heralded as “the grand return of Daft Punk,” it doesn’t exactly feel like the band has gone anywhere. Two years after their last “proper” album, ‘Human After All,’ they released the live concert album ‘Alive 2007,’ which succeeded in sidestepping traditional concert recording pitfalls by purposefully putting new spins on all their old tracks. ‘Alive 2007’ was generally well received, as was Daft Punk’s original, Grammy nominated soundtrack for 2010’s Tron: Legacy. Indeed, were the critical public to be taken at their word, Daft Punk were not only an active presence over the past 8 years, they were continuously getting better.
Were one so inclined, a nifty little narrative arc could be traced over the aforementioned span of time. With ‘Human After All,’ Daft Punk addressed themes of encroaching humanity upon their robotic personas (lest we forget, said album’s title was technically true), even if said explorations never penetrated their music’s sound. Perhaps believing that they’d carried their sound as far as it could go, Daft Punk made with the remix live concert, which served to highlight both the pervasive strengths and similarities of their creative output up to that point. Whether their involvement with Tron: Legacy was a consciously sought-out proposition or not, it was on that next musical offering that the duo began to experiment with a significantly more organic sound, blending real world orchestras with their signature synth.
So it is that this path finds its fruition with ‘Random Access Memories,’ an album so traditional in its production, it nearly qualifies as a reinvention for Daft Punk. Apart from a relatively sparse set-up of vocoders and synthesizers, ‘R.A.M.’ (get it?) largely makes use of actual instrumentation for its compositions, including that oldest of instruments: the human voice, in the form of several collaborating artists. This new arrangement for Daft Punk first made itself known to the world via the debut single, “Get Lucky,” featuring Rap producer and singer Pharrell Williams. Upon first listen, that “featuring” qualifier almost seems backwards, as Daft Punk’s more familiar presence doesn’t even kick in until half-way through. Granted, it’s a fantastic song all the same, a stellar throwback to the disco-tinged dance music Daft Punk had originally made a name for itself by inverting for the digital age.
Outside of the album’s contextual framework, it’s understandable that “Get Lucky” would have the potential to baffle. That’s because, on the whole, ‘Random Access Memories’ is an album about a group discovering its roots; an album about the robots becoming acquainted with their inventors. That theme is made literal on the album’s two longest tracks, “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Touch.” The former pays tribute to one of synth-pops progenerators, the titular Giorgio whose autobiographical narration plays over D.P.’s looping synths and jam session instrumentals. Where “Giorgio by Moroder” builds to a rollicking finish, “Touch” shines brightest for is nostalgically soft vibe, a sure indicator that legendary singer/songwriter / character actor Paul Williams is collaborating (the William’s co-staring Phantom of the Paradise was supposedly an inspiration for Daft Punk’s robotic ascetic; just some trivia that you’d probably read elsewhere anyway).
If these two tracks are any indication, a lot of ‘R.A.M.’s’ success stems from the strength of Daft Punks various collaborations. Pharrell Williams has always been touched on, though his first and equally good contribution comes on “Lose Yourself to Dance.” Again, Daft Punk allow Pharrell center stage, possibly because the repeated entreaty to “Sweat” would be less alluring coming from a robot incapable of such a physiological process. “Lose Yourself to Dance” works on its own merits, but also as a necessary buffer between “Touch” and “Instant Crush,” a fittingly seductive number that finds The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas pulling vocoder duty for a change. This track, or perhaps the also ridiculously catchy Panda Bear collaboration, “Doin’ It Right,” might have actually made for a more fitting lead single, as it shares a closer link with the Daft Punk of years past while still evoking ‘R.A.M.’s’ revelatory spirit.
For as much as I’ve made of the collaborations, Daft Punk do a fantastic job all on their own, as if you needed the reassurance. All throughout “Random Access Memories,” there’s an undeniable streak of melancholy that’s especially evident when D.P. are left to their own devices, as they are on “The Game of Love,” “Within,” and “Beyond.” The latter track is especially indicative of ‘R.A.M.’s’ core mood, the swelling of strings quickly giving way to a low-key groove that allows for the duo to ruminate on “Dreams beyond dreams.” It’s a more somber variant on the opening track, ‘Give Life Back to Music;” there, we had a lively, inviting riff that spoke more of the thrill of Daft Punk’s freshly gained sentience. If ‘Random Access Memories’ is the arrival of the group’s singularity, then “Give Life Back to Music” seeks to have us celebrate the occasion before dwelling on the broader ramifications too deeply.
Now, I won’t say that Daft Punk have had a propensity towards late-album filler tracks in the past (not that it isn’t true, even on their best albums), but there is a slight yet noticeable sag near ‘R.A.M’s’ end, specifically with “Motherboard” and “Fragments of Time.” The former is expansive but forgettable (a critical enough assessment considering its company), while the latter, a collaboration with DJ Todd Edwards, assumes a relentlessly cheerful tone that stands in stark contrast with even the most upbeat of ‘R.A.M.’s’ other offerings. Whether or not the album would be stronger as a whole without these two tracks is a matter of personal opinion: they don’t ultimately detract from anything else, yet their presence is a tangible anomaly all the same.
There are many sustained high points on ‘Random Access Memories,’ perhaps the most resonant, “Contact,” being saved for last. While “Touch” is the more emotional track, with its heartrending chorus of “If love is the answer, you’re home,” “Contact” manages to take ‘R.A.M.’s’ prevalent sense of melancholy and render it triumphant amid a rocketing swell of keyboards and drum rolls. It’s a joyous yet definite end to everything that preceded it, leading one to wonder where Daft Punk will go from here. They’ve just finished looking to their past, so perhaps there’s still future enough for these two robots to explore.