Review Summary: A nostalgic drive through disco and dance that could never have lived up to the hype
On a bright Monday morning as the sun reaches out, arms stretched, yawning sleepily with the rest of the world a man walks towards his car. Tired and sullen he turns the ignition, gazing hopelessly into the rearview mirror, the silver reflective pill gazes back and the two reveal to each other an image of dusted, wrinkled, aging apathy. He takes a long skeletal finger and with one last effort to find in the endless monotony a sliver of something new he pushes a button marked 'play'
A beat begins. A hint of something stirs within him, a motion unfelt for so long it appears new. The sound soothes and satiates a growing hunger, driving him down a Californian highway, caring little for the view save for it's effect on his mood. The car, the man, the music come together as one while the highway takes on a new form. Neon lights blend together to form long streams of light on his sides while the surrounding trees fall back, receeding into a background that blurs and pulsates with rhythm. The highway becomes a vortex of melodies upon which the single being travels not forwards or backwards, nor remains stationary, it becomes a timeless and omnipresent existence that simply is.
That is the sound of Random Access Memories, the intention and the result, to bring from the past and drag from the future sounds and memories and fuse them to create a timeless experience. To combine that nostalgic, almost heartbroken memory of what's been and gone with the optimism and joy of discovery, of the unknown, is to celebrate the very essence of humanity. That's what they've done here, the robots have discovered the heart and soul of the human condition and celebrated it with an enthusiasm as prevalent and seductive as anything on their past albums.
Known predominantly for defining and redefining techno and house music, Daft Punk are arguably responsible for influencing every well known Electronic Dance act of the last decade. Every few years when the creativity of the genre becomes a little stale, a little bland, they show up again to remind us what it's all about
: Having fun, feeling good, boogying your butt like it's the first and last night of your youth.
They've deviated so wildly here from the established sound, though, so much that it doesn't just stand out next to contemporary EDM, it bares little resemblence to it at all. Make no mistake, this is not techno as we know it, it's disco, it's funk, it's rock, it's music as expression and it does it magnificently.
The album's songs seem to be split into three categories: Mid-tempo dance tracks like the lead single, Get Lucky, laid back dance ballads in the vein of Face to Face or Something About Us from their seminal masterpiece Discovery, and a few experimental tracks where ideas are taken beyond their expected conclusion to new heights. The latter songs are, of course, much less accessible initially. Touch, in particular, took me a good few listens before I began to know how to react (FYI: The appropriate response is, rather obviously, to dance like nobody's business) let alone form an opinion. As such the album as a whole can be daunting at first, and that's before taking into account it's lengthy run time. Over time and a few listens, though, you begin to get an idea for the album as a whole.
Yet every song has it's own style, it's own identity. Instant Crush is a late eighties – early nineties pop ballad if ever I've heard one, albeit one that utilizes the autotune of today and a guitar solo ripped from the seventies. While Fragments of Time is an unashamed disco track, drenched in a bubbly froth of synths, backed by engaging bass and live drums that beg to be boogied to.
The production is, as expected, near perfect without sounding clinical. The robots are perfectionists, taking their time not just to find the right sound, but to find it's exact place within a song and place it there with a touch as delicate, yet decisive, as heavy or light as needed. The vocoder in The Game of Love is an early example, it's smooth, warmed by a silken liquid lust, a nostalgic reminder of a love long lost that perfectly reflects the theme of the song's lyrics. The closer, Contact, is perhaps the best example, for among it's constantly climbing cacophony of sounds flutters the slightest flourishes only noticed on repeated listens, that is, when you have adjusted to the sheer force of noise enough to pick them out (one thing that doesn't disappear is the way that noise elevates you into an untamed excitement - a definite pump-up track.)
The album has fallen under some early scrutiny, however, with many detractors complaining about the lack of dance anthems with the intense and addictive qualities of past hits, like the once omnipresent Around The World from their first album, or the simple, loud Robot Rock. What needs to be remembered is that there was a time when things were slower, when people moved with purpose to a beat just faster than that of a human heart – that's what we have here. Weather it's the chilled out, optimistic groove of opener Give Life back To Music or the Eighties beat of Lose Yourself To Dance the album's intent seems to be to lift the listener from their chair and move them in a relaxed, almost sensual way. The latter song is so reminiscent of early Michael Jackson that you could be forgiven for thinking he had possessed the robots during it's inception, and nothing says danceable like the King of Pop.
What's most notable, and perhaps the biggest difference when compared to their previous albums is the lack of sampling. Taking a distinctive melody, hook or sound from an older song and crafting it into a new shape, changing it's surroundings to allow it to be something nobody could have imagined is the way of the greatest Electronic and House artists. It can be a shock, then, to hear the live instruments be more to the fore than the samples, of which there seem fewer than ever before. It seems to be a natural maturation for Daft Punk, though, to now be the ones creating the sounds that will be sampled endlessly in the future. As time is cyclical, so is the nature of all things and Daft Punk seem to understand that better than anyone.
For all it's ups and downs, it's odds and ends, it's combination of disco and funk with elecronica, I think there is an overarching theme. That seems to be, simply put, a celebration of expressing emotion through music. And a damned fine, damned fun, damned ***ing good one at that.
A little over an hour later the vortex, shaken, stirred, splintered from the sheer force of what has happened, slows to a stop. The being of neon light, whose essence was for a moment spread through the passages of history and hope for the future to become a luminescent fixture of time, becomes once more a man, a car, and a silent stereo. Forever changed, no longer an antique skeletal figure, the man turns the ignition off, steps out, and walks onward with a skip in his stride, a melody in his head and a blue sparkle twinkling in his old grey eyes.