From their 1997 debut Homework and even moreso with 2001’s Discovery, Daft Punk arguably became the foremost ambassadors of electronic music, at once pleasing the discerning tastes of college radio and mainstream audiences. They’ve simultaneously managed to maintain a sort of indie credibility while shilling commercial products for The Gap, Sony, Victoria’s Secret, Coca-Cola, and Adidas. Today’s release of Random Access Memories is one of 2013’s most anticipated releases, the culmination of a months-long publicity campaign waged primarily through television teasers and viral videos. Truthfully, the album marks the French duo’s first proper studio album in eight years, although they’ve satiated fans in the interim via a second live LP and their score for Disney’s 2010 Tron reboot.
In full disclosure, I’d written off Daft Punk after 2005’s Human After All which, while enjoyable, seemed to be treading all-too familiar territory for the band following the massive success of Discovery. But I was immediately intrigued by the information that began to dribble out regarding Random Access Memories. In particular, the collaborations seemed like just the kind of third-party element that Daft Punk needed to mix up their next album. Ultimately, it seems that these collaborations, an eight year waiting period, and the opportunity to flex other creative muscles via Tron has paid off for Daft Punk; Random Access Memories lives up to the hype, and will likely reign as the summer album of 2013.
While Random Access Memories is absolutely a dance record, it’s somehow more complex yet still accessible in comparison to their earlier work. I’m hard pressed to consider the album anything resembling techno or house music. Rather, it’s much more an homage to the disco, synth funk, and electro of the 1970s-1980s. While there’s a very conscious throwback element here, the album manages to sound fresh and bring an energy to the music that prevents this homage from becoming mere nostalgic pandering.
Again, much of this has to do with the many collaborations that helped to bring diverse perspectives to the composition and recording of Random Access Memories. The various guests that Daft Punk brought into the project clearly made their individual marks on the Daft tracks, giving the album an overall quality of electro gumbo – each bite is a little bit different, but the whole bowl is consistently good. Famed electro producer Giorgio Moroder laces an autobiographical monologue over a poppy funk groove. It’s the kind of track that has the potential to wear out it’s welcome after an initial listen, but somehow it maintains its appeal (perhaps because Moroder is a badass who not coincidentally, is also working on new material of his own).
On the the indie side of the equation, Daft Punk have enlisted The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas (“Instant Crush”) and Panda Bear (“Doin’ it Right”), while AM gold songsmith Paul Williams contributes his vocals and songwriting skills to “Beyond” and “Touch.” The latter is arguably the low point of Random Access Memories for me; while compositionally quite good, Williams’ vocals come off a bit stiff and awkward in contrast to the song’s smooth, laid back groove. The album’s other Williams (Pharrell) fares much better in lending his vocals to the irresistible “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance.”
At the forefront of the many splendored collaborations on Random Access Memories are three tracks featuring legendary producer/guitarist/arranger Nile Rodgers. Rodgers’ dossier precedes him: now entering his fifth decade of composition, performance, and production of classic after classic – what I like to call an embarrassment of riches. Chic, Bowie, B-52s, INXS, Madonna, Duran Duran, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, et. al. As diverse as Rodgers’ resume is, he always manages to make his individual mark on each project. His work on Random Access Memories is no different. There”s simply no denying that crisp, clean, funky guitar style that is Rodgers’ calling card, and it’s all over “Give Life Back to Music,” the smash single “Get Lucky,” and “Lose Yourself to Dance.” These tracks have an especially vibrant, celebratory feel to them in light of Rodgers’ ongoing recovery from prostate cancer.
In fact, that might be a good way to summarize the entire album: “celebratory.” It’s undeniably a party record, one that looks forward as much as it looks back. There’s a great sense of self-awareness in these songs, at once acknowledging and celebrating the group’s historical debts and their continuation of that history.