Album Review: Random Access Memories

You know the feeling of anxiety  when pressing play on a song you’ve never heard before? And do you recognize how your body changes when you hear a novel sound in that same song? Daft Punk doesn’t want you to feel that way. They want you to harken back when you first heard that kick drum, or that vocoder, or that synth, and then acknowledge that these French idols do it better than anyone who has stepped in a studio.

Last year, I wrote that Daft Punk’s first two albums Homework and Discovery played like the two most celebrated Beatles albums, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper respectively. Now that we have access to Random Access Memories, the most highly anticipated album of the young decade, it is only fair to continue the hyperbolic thread of Beatles comparisons. RAM is Daft Punk’s White Album, in that it fits the Beatles scheme of attempting to sound-check all of their prior musical influences instead of standing at the cusp of novelty. Much like the White Album, the results on RAM are mixed.

The opener “Give Life Back to Music” provides the album’s thesis statement: “Let the music of your life give life back to music,” Paul Jackson Jr. sings using the band’s trademark android vocoder. “Give Life Back to Music” opens up RAM like the cherished event it has been hyped up to be, but it doesn’t have the same novelty as “Daftendirekt” or the ecstasy of “One More Time.” Sadly, this theme runs throughout the course of RAM. Songs like “Give Life Back to Music,” “Motherboard,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” and “Contact,” all sound like songs that would grace Homework or Discovery’s B-side. They harken like “Glass Onion” and “Helter Skelter,” two very good Beatles songs that would never appear on a greatest hits compilation.

Much like The White Album, Daft Punk doesn’t want to advance the musical conversation as they have been for the past fifteen years. They would rather reintroduce their listeners to whatever inspired them to be the greatest, and far from being repetitive, they find a way to make the entire album sound fresh while maintaining an undeniable sense of identity. The songs on RAM are as diverse as the band has ever done, but it still sounds like a Daft Punk album, a trick only performed by bands with clear vision and enough courage to provide the listeners with what they think is best.

The album’s first side straddles the line between pleasant and forgettable, the highlight being Julian Casablanca’s out-of-nowhere falsetto gracing the new-wave inspired “Instant Crush.” “Giorgio by Morodor” is a nice tribute to the father of European disco, but besides the fun story told in the song’s prologue, it’s dance floor readiness is up for debate. You can tell that Daft Punk wants to stretch their musical chops beyond the dance floor, but their tracks have always been able to weed the wallflowers, and it’s a bit concerning that there are less than a handful of surefire club hits on the album.

Things pick up rapidly with “Touch,” quite possibly the closest thing to a masterpiece the duo has completed. Vocal legend Paul Williams lends what not only is the first human sounding voice to the band’s repertoire, but what is also house music’s best Phantom of the Opera impression. Williams waxes android poetic in the first movement, channeling Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey with a flesh-and-blood identity crisis, before giving way to an acoustic wall of noise the band has never even hinted at attempting. Williams croons the aphorism laid in the third movement like his legacy depends on it: “If love is the answer/you’ll hold on.” It sounds like “Paranoid Android’s” prodigal son. Heck, it may be better than “Paranoid Android,” and there are a few intelligent musical critics who consider that to be the greatest rock song ever.

The album’s second side follows the same pattern as the first side, though the peaks are much higher and, thankfully, so are the valleys. “Get Lucky” kicks off the second side, and since you’ve probably heard it a billiondy times by now, there’s no need for me to elaborate on its perfectly crafted perfect disco perfection (I did it anyway). “Fragments of Time” feels like the least Daft Punk-y song ever created. Producer Todd Edwards, the brainchild behind “Face to Face,” lends his talents once again to craft a Fleetwood Mac/Steely Dan/Genesis feel good anthem that glides without a hitch. The album’s best song, “Doin’ it Right,” features the digital Brian Wilson-y vocals of Panda Bear, an equally celebrated indie artist with a portfolio so vastly different from that of the House Beatles that it’s a wonder the collaboration works at all. The Frenchies mix a syrupy-slow trap beat with their trademark vocoder refrain, and the Yankee harmonizes beautifully with the inhuman contact, stealing the show from the most star-studded list of collaborators since the last “We are the World” recording. It gives the listener enough of the band’s trademark sound while advancing their own purposes. It’d be a gold record in any era.

The White Album has some of The Beatles’s best moments and many more to which should have never been visited. Regardless of the outcome, they tried what they thought was necessary, and Daft Punk finds similar success with the same intentions on RAM: three instant classics, another handful of good songs, and another handful of fruit skins, useful, but not really wanted. RAM most certainly has a bigger message, but in the era of singles and digital downloads, it might be wasted energy to get the sermon out to the willing public. In any case, Daft Punk has fabricated a mythological realm surrounding a very good album, but it’d be naïve to place this next to Homework or Discovery. They probably wouldn’t want you to, either.

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