Review Summary: Rolling and Scratching.
Twenty years old. This month, Daft Punk’s first full length LP, Homework
, turns the same age as me. That’s an odd thought for someone who grew up listening to Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter’s music; the very songs that defined my time in junior and senior high are now just as old as I am. For all the fanfare earned by Random Access Memories
is a strangely innocuous album, an apolitical stab at displaying the lush and varied house scene of pre-millennium France in all its dark, conflicting glory. There is little commentary here, no bangers like “One More Time” or “Get Lucky,” just a flawed but curious artifact of a now vacant style registered in rich instrumental dance tracks. With two decades grown on its grooves, Homework
celebrates its birthday without one eye turned to it: standing completely on its own without any sort of congratulatory rerelease or deluxe edition, instead just remaining in is enshrined state, an oblique and noncommittal work bent only on objective display. It’s Daft Punk’s most journalistic effort, and despite its clumsy execution, it’s worth taking another look at.
To be absolutely clear, this album is neither a masterpiece nor a classic. At its worst, it’s even unmemorable - almost 74 minutes long, cumbersome, inelegant and full of songs that fail to excite in any meaningful way. It’s missing the crucial pop pleasures of Daft Punk’s remarkable latter albums in place of long, toppling house beats that can feel riveting or monotonous depending on the listener. Most of us will lean towards the later. It’s a drunken stumble into the mainstream for a duo that would later become famous for their practiced and meticulous precision in audio production.
It makes sense Homework’s
a little bit of a mess. de Homem-Christo once remarked on the album’s composition, recorded in just about five months after a hasty contract with Virgin Records, that “there was no intended theme because all the tracks were recorded before we arranged the sequence of the album. The idea was to make the songs better by arranging them the way we did; to make it more even as an album.” The sixteen tracks collected here were never imagined to be part of a cohesive project, just singles that took on a name when placed next to one another. That means that no matter how well sequenced the album is, Homework
never really feels like a complete vision of anything. As a result, the fare is pretty predictable. Inevitably, a few arresting sounds emerge against the march of a 4x4 beat rattled by high hats and skittering electronic glitches. These sounds loop to the point of dissociation with the occasional switch up in melody - some fragments fading out to return later or others getting thrown through the repeater a few extra rounds. It’s the same procedure throughout, a reliable but often dull template the two would skewer in their later works.
But if anything shows for the twenty years between Homework’s
release and today, it’s the keen sense of preservation giving the record its slightest hint of spirit. Recording the present seems to be the only thing on the duo’s mind as their music wanders from one nineties house scene to another, frantically documenting each iteration. These are all snippets of different clubs and scenes and sounds and styles in the growing house movement that prospered in Paris in the early nineties. Each song sounds like a brief sample of a larger world behind it - the glamorous pink disco clubs imagined in “High Fidelity’s” warped vocals, the distant tide on “Fresh” like a drive on the coast set to worn out dance cassettes, the boisterous sci-fi kitsch and veracity of “Around the World” wrapped with warmth and energy. Bangalter would later go on to score Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, a film that largely unfolds in the spaces between clubs, the manic taxi drives from one party to another, abandoned underpasses, unoccupied apartments and garish, disquieting city parks.You can hear a lot of those specific locational moments when Homework
is working at its best: songs like “Revolution 909” seem to be taken straight from the delirium of 4 AM city lost in a post-party haze, the ring of a forlorn refrain and downtrodden samples next to a constantly whirring percussion. One of the most successful cuts from the album, “Da Funk,” performs these same acrobatics in its swaggering distortion and sleek central riff so that you can’t help but picture the unlit downtown streets outside a club. It’s atmospheric and nonspecific, but the richness of the sounds Bangalter and De-Hommem Christo bring to the table give it a sense of weight.
When it doesn’t work, however, it really doesn’t work at all. The ramping electronics and drum that would go on to inspire French acts like Justice, like on “Rollin’ & Scratchin,’” sound nothing short of obnoxious today, the middling uncertainty of “Oh Yeah” too boring to be grating. What sounds like an initially intriguing spin on “Burnin’” turns out just to be another dizzying, repetitive groan drawn out of over too many minutes. “Indo Silver Club” is pointless, “Teachers,” a well intentioned diversion, is a call out track without spirit or listenability. Out of context, which is the dingy basements of nineties parties and European clubs, Homework
is almost excruciating in its inability to articulate any idea precisely or with much depth. These are dance songs, and when you’re not drunk or dancing, they can be rough. With softer passages and a more immediately friendly sound, albums like Discovery easily overcome these obstacles, just look to “Too Long” and see how well the duo can handle themselves even in ten minute settings. Here, unfortunately, there is scarcely any intentionality to match the group’s undeniable skill and many of their most interesting ideas turn up flat when played through Homework’s
For all of its hitches, especially in its exhaustive back half, it feels worth it to hear the closing roar of the album’s best moment, “Alive.” With its relentless waves of dark synths and electric claustrophobia, it seems to evoke real sublimity in the music the duo are so committed to capturing. It’s the most innovative and provocative moment of the whole ordeal, something that takes what makes house music great and interrogates it until it ends up bearing a strange new shape entirely. Daft Punk may have been too shy to try and bring that illumination to the other fifteen tracks here, but they weren’t afraid to fully commit themselves to a genre that was really only popular in one part of the world. Their loyalty and stubborn bond to French house is both Homework’s
brightest quality and its greatest downfall - it shows, unapologetically, where the two were coming from as they launched into their now iconic careers, but it also reveals the vapidity and indigestible formal conventions of house. It wouldn’t be until they really defied those same conventions that Daft Punk would find brilliance, but the music here is constantly coquetting the idea with fervor and intensity. These are two smart young men about to begin a promising career that would change electronic music forever, wondering where exactly to go with their sound and image. With Homework
, it seems, they ultimately choose to just stay home.