Review Summary: A conceptual gem that falls victim to its subject, but manages to prevail through beautiful instrumentation and progression.
This is quite an untimely review, given the album's release in May of last year. Regardless, having never listened to any Daft Punk (their work on Tron aside) the recent Grammys inspired me to give them an ear - so bear in mind, my grasp of context is relatively weak. In this sense, I went into Random Access Memories with something of a blank slate, and wanted to review it in pseudo-isolation.
Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' is heavily experimental. It's soaked in an authentic 70s vibe that largely persists throughout the entirety of the album - with the main departures being seen on 'Motherboard' and 'Contact', arguably the album's more ambitious tracks. 'Ambitious' is an appropriate descriptor for most of the foundations beneath RAM - and the duo largely follow through from a purely conceptual perspective. From the vindictive 'Give Life Back to Music' to the album's closing track, 'Contact', Daft Punk succeed in telling a story, albeit something of a nostalgic one. Unlike its predecessor, 'Human After All', RAM is thematically powerful and in spite of its musical flaws deserves a great deal of credit for trying to say something.
RAM has been partially accused and praised for being a departure from their ordinary methods - straying further from the house music that solidified the duo in the industry. In spite of my fairly lacking knowledge of their past, I view RAM as quite the contrary. There is a reminiscence of the 70s vibe prominent on RAM that seems to linger in the house style tracks they produced in 2001, as though there were always a desire of exploration. To me, the very atmosphere of Daft Punk screams 70s - and it seems to have always been an influential factor that has permeated their sound.
I've always leaned toward the conceptual elements of music (I was fond of Yeezus), but I can't deny the craftsmanship on this album. Perhaps my favorite track, 'Give Life Back To Music' has a powerful sense of progression that's skillfully fragmented by instrumental periods that give every vocal return a kick. The track has a wonderful understanding of contrast that manages to accentuate its collective sense of awe, whilst evading the trap of confusing the message altogether. It's almost a shame that the album starts with an exemplar demonstration of contrast - because its waveringly maintained. Tracks like 'Lose Yourself to Dance' and 'Doin' it Right', although exciting and catchy, simply become repetitious in the face of their more progressive company, such as 'Motherboard', 'Fragments of Time', or 'Touch'. In spite of Daft Punk's introduction of now-distant 70s themes, they artfully avoid cheesiness, with the exception of some synthesizers seen on 'Touch'. The duo manage to simultaneously ground the listener is this alternative universe of music whilst providing it with an appealing dreamlike quality. This effect is at its peak when Daft Punk muster their ambition to keep building and building upon layers that often accumulate to truly impressive conclusions, which is particularly well done on 'Touch' and 'Motherboard'.
Although the duo manage to circumvent most of the cliches and pitfalls of their concept, perhaps the largest concern when dealing with 70s disco music is repetition. Although mentioned earlier, it often manifests itself in the worst forms - in particular, on the pointless introduction to 'Giorgio by Moroder'. The monologue is a betraying back stab to the subtleties of Daft Punk's symbolism and thematic presence, and leaves me cold. The track recovers with astonishing well-plotted drumming and an invigorating bassline, but it's such a shame to pad it with a minute and a half of drivel. Conversely, 'Doin' it Right', in spite of strong vocals from Panda Bear, defies the progressive nature of the album to the point of tedium. It's bizarre that for musicians so closely associated to layering and synthesizers, they manage to poorly integrate any their talents to the track. Because the majority of the album closely follows the 70s theme, some of the tracks sadly become indistinguishable. The album's run time of ~70 minutes is in slight excess, and although at first novel, the guitar riffs and synths begin to slightly drag on.
In spite of RAM's slight overuse of filler and its occasional inconsistencies, I consider it an excellent album. My score may sound overblown given my serious issues with its repetitive sound, but the overall appeal behind the idea that Daft Punk bring forward really carried it for me. It's strong experimentation, but with a little more attention to detail it could have been something truly outstanding.