After pioneering the electronic dance-music movement in the ’90s, Daft Punk has spent more than a decade watching as devoted followers have slowly pushed it closer to the mainstream. Though a few notable innovators made an original mark and moved on (like LCD Soundsystem), the genre has been increasingly usurped by tablet-touting, pop-obsessed college kids whose songwriting and performance abilities are fully dependent on an ample supply of USB cords. Disguised as space-age cyborgs and emerging with their first studio album in eight years, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo seemed poised for an Odyssean return to electronic dance; however, with Random Access Memories, the French duo is not attempting to reclaim its kingdom—rather, it’s trying to destroy it.
The record is a bold expedition through the evolution of dance music, amassing sonic curios from each era and incorporating them all into the disco-jazz fusion of the ’70s and ’80s that has always inspired the pair. The results are sometimes straightforwardly throwback: “Get Lucky,” featuring iconic disco guitarist Nile Rodgers, has run up the charts with little more than a simple, breezy funk groove and Pharrell Williams’ stylishly smooth R&B croon. (Elsewhere, Rodgers and Williams pack a little more punch in the disco jam of “Lose Yourself To Dance.”) Given no-nonsense tracks like these—as well as Random Access Memories’ vaguely glam-band cover and adulation for old-school production techniques (it was recorded entirely analog to tape)—it’s tempting to categorize all this as a hugely extravagant homage.
But here Daft Punk aggressively advances the form, delivering its sprawling jams with live instrumentation and pumping them with prog-rock bombast until they burst at the seams. With allusions to robots and UFOs, and themes of the intersection of humanity and technology, the album’s sci-fi aesthetic signals an intent to—by blending many shades of retro—create the dance music of tomorrow. However, while the record ecstatically embraces both past and future, it doesn’t have much love for the present, turning an icy shoulder to modern club-style beats, loops, or samples, and shunning the computer assistance that sustains most newcomers. Songs such as the low-key “Instant Crush,” featuring Julian Casablancas’ lush vocals morphed into an android lament, ease into a slick guitar-synth-drums gloss that’s catchy, alluring, and sure to disappoint the pair’s rave-going fan base. Similarly, not too many DJs are likely to clamor for a copy of “The Game Of Love,” a down-tempo soft-rock ballad with aching vocoder vocals and a smooth-funk atmosphere.
Random Access Memories is also an all-out war on the current single-song consumption model, striking right at the heart of the beast: Its only official pre-release was a single, inseparable album-long stream on iTunes, the platform that has nearly killed the album format in a barrage of 99-cent individual tracks. Indeed, if there’s one recent event in modern music that seems to have inspired the record, it’s the gargantuan mega-production that is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Like West, who sampled the duo’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” on 2007’s Graduation and is rumored to be collaborating with them on his next record, Daft Punk here makes a blatant play to restore the album as the preferred artistic method, packing in a dizzying crowd of diverse and unexpected collaborators, airing out long-form songs for minutes beyond what any Top 40 station would accept, meticulously tinkering each track to its smallest detail, and generally letting ambition run wild and refusing to compromise. In a complete reversal from the intentionally simple and slapdash approach to their last studio effort, 2005’s Human After All, everything about Random Access Memories is part of a larger, all-consuming event, from its recording of even minor effects on a full soundstage to its marketing on urban billboards and television commercials for the album—not exactly common media for album advertisements these days.
As to be expected with something this chaotically imaginative, the record is equal parts surprising and confusing, with as much to gawk at as to marvel. The collaborations run from befitting and well-executed pairings (i.e., Panda Bear of Animal Collective on the snappy vocoder-and-snare-driven “Doin’ It Right”) to left-field choices that vault into the ridiculous (i.e., “Touch,” a 250-track orchestrated electro-big-band-honky-tonk rhapsody fronted by schmaltzy pop has-been Paul Williams, singing as a forlorn robot and backed by an angelic chorus). At times, Random Access Memories devolves into disorganized aural slop, drags on to tiring excess, and exhibits a frustrating lack of discipline; many of its 75 minutes could have been cut without doing any real harm to the pair’s artistic vision. The duo isn’t afraid to put its shameless indulgence front and center, either, such as the over-the-top hero-worship of Italian synth-dance pioneer Giorgio Moroder on the nine-minute electro-funk epic “Giorgio By Moroder,” which begins with its subject waxing nostalgic about the birth of synth music in a monologue before slowly meandering into a sloppy morass of weighty electronica, thudding bass, and jabbing guitar solos, with some tossed-in orchestration.
But the album is nonetheless an entrancing and endlessly entertaining musical experience, a fun collection that can soundtrack a great party from start to finish, but also rewards the focused listener with a collage of fascinating quirks. By mashing up 40 years of dance music (including the electronic styles Daft Punk once pioneered) with live performance and grandiloquent presentation, Random Access Memories is a record that will sound familiar to multiple generations and simultaneously unlike anything that came before it. In taking cues from the stargazing disco-funk of the ’70s and ’80s, Daft Punk has called forth a time when “the future” was a permanent concept, but humans—not computers—were still responsible for creating it.