It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Daft Punk had on electronic dance music and 21st century pop: their 1997 debut Homework administered a much needed injection of adrenaline into a flagging and imploding global house music scene, whilst 2001’s Discovery provided what would become a framework for the next decade’s pop music, as well as diverting the course of dance music for the second time. 2005’s Human After All was ironically aptly named; though not a bad album, it felt underwhelming for a band deified for possessing a seemingly prescient ability to unmask the sound of the future at will.
Random Access Memories, their first proper LP in eight years, sees Daft Punk embark on a mission to enliven contemporary dance music by amassing the disparate sounds of their musical past. At its core, Random Access Memories is a disco record, though one that has been reflected through the lens of nineties and noughties club music to bring the seventies and eighties back into context. In their efforts to “give life back to music” Daft Punk shine a light on the DNA of dance music itself- disco, funk, and soul- and give it a new millennial jumpstart. Their preoccupation with disco and “The Motown Sound” was always evident, right there on display with their iconic android helmets- which drew their inspiration from seventies Motown star Mandré- but it’s laid bare on Random Access Memories with the choppy Motown-esque guitar riffs and shifting funk refrains.
The two Pharrell Williams collaborations, lead single Get Lucky and the excellent Lose Yourself To Dance, are emblematic of what this album is both conceptually and thematically- an origins record with a twist; feet firmly rooted in the past, arms reaching high for the stratosphere, eyes peering through a magical visor into the glittering expanse of the future. Both tracks are driven by Nile Rodgers’ irresistible funk fuelled guitar licks, and feature vocals by Williams that would not have sounded out of place on Off The Wall or Thriller… Somewhere up in heaven Michael Jackson is moon-walking to the sounds of Random Access Memories.
To convey their disdain of established methods masquerading as certainties, this is an album almost wholly played out by hand, renouncing what might have been an expected reliance on synthesisers for the organic sounds gifted by an impressive cast of characters: Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Paul Jackson (whose guitar work features heavily on Michael Jackson’s Thriller), The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, and composer Paul Williams.
Perhaps the album’s greatest strength is the number of “OMG did that just really happen?!” moments: the jazz-bar interludes, the Andrew Lloyd Webber intermezzo, Casablancas’ vocoder-warped vocals on the gorgeous Instant Crush. Opening track Give Life Back To Music pulses along on a bass-line that evokes recollections of Earth, Wind & Fire; whilst the nine minute epic Giorgio by Moroder pays homage to the legendary disco producer by evolving into a kaleidoscope of all the styles he flirted with and contributed to, crescendoing for a few brief seconds by way of the house music that Moroder famously inspired. Elsewhere, album centrepiece Touch is a complex genre-defying magic carpet ride through a whirlpool of emotions and sounds, held together by some kind of wraithlike alien phantasmagorical power. If that sounds crazy, it will make more sense after listening to the song!
This is a bold and exuberant album, a seventy-two minute wild odyssey across disco and funk soundscapes, laced with jagged pieces of terrain that Daft Punk have managed to extract from the present and the future. Like all great music and like life itself, it’s shot through with a thin vein of melancholy. Its daring and courageous attempt to subvert the generally accepted and established conventions of EDM (conventions that the band members Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter helped establish) should be applauded, and the fact that this album will frustrate as many people as it empowers should make you smile: music needs more people who are willing to rip up the handbook and derail the bandwagon.
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