May 21, 2013

Music Review: "Random Access Memories" by Daft Punk


By Ian Cory

On the last day of classes at my high school, my entire grade (60 kids, it was a small school) crammed into a classroom and blasted music while we signed each other’s yearbooks. Being the school’s designated music nerd I was allowed access to the playlist on the condition that I didn’t play anything too outlandish. Knowing that I had a limited amount of social currency to spend, I selected only two songs; Europe’s “The Final Countdown”* and Daft Punk’s “One More Time”. The later ended up being played upwards of five times over the final 45 minutes of the day. I do not consider myself to be much of a dancer, but my 17-year-old self cut a fucking rug to the best of his ability. It was in this moment of uninhibited excitement and relief that I “got” dance music. I was surrounded by 59 other kids who were all equally psyched about being alive, and none of us gave a shit that we looked pretty silly trying to dance through the hallways while carrying an iPod speaker and singing along to a 6 year old French House tune.

I say all of this to explain the angle I’m coming from when I talk about Daft Punk. I don’t take them particularly seriously, but I have some pretty strong emotional connections to a small percentage of their music. Like my graduating class, Daft Punk never seemed like they cared about being total cornballs as long as everyone was having a great time. Now, six years after their star-making Alive tour (and five years after my high school graduation) Daft Punk have released Random Access Memories, an album that doesn’t give too much of a shit about how much fun you’re having as long as you take it seriously. This may sound a bit harsh, and I don’t mean to say that the record isn’t a fun listen, but it’s just that the intent behind the music feels drastically different. The duo has said as much in the album’s spectacular press campaign, dismissing sampling in favor of more “authentic” live instrumentation. There is something delightfully ironic about the former go-to group for critics to prove they were poptimists suddenly transforming into retro-fetishistic rockists, but it’s also kind of depressing.

Right from the get-go Daft Punk presume that you take them to be the game changing serious artists by positing that they are the music of your life and that listening to them gives life back to music. This idea of “life” returning to a world of cold machinery shows up again on “Touch”, an eight minute long bloated prog rock suite in which Paul Williams speak-sings from the perspective of a robot regaining his ability to feel. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine all of this as a statement about Daft Punk returning to teach the current EDM scene about “real” music, even recruiting Giorgio Moroder to give a history lesson over bubbling analog synthesizer arpeggios. As much as I hate to admit it, this elitist agenda does allow the record to sound incredibly pristine. Sonically, this album is nearly perfect. Every detail is immediate and has a well-defined place in the mix, and even when the arrangements get busy like on “Motherboard”, there’s still an alarming degree of clarity.

So on the surface it’s expertly crafted, and at it’s roots it’s snobbish and self-serious, but is it good? Sometimes. Random Access Memories does best when it loses the absurd theatricality and goes for the groove. As such, the show tune piano ballad “Within” falls flat while Pharell’s guest spot on the neo-disco “Lose Yourself To Dance”** soars. “Game Of Love” is completely forgettable, while “Doin It Right” makes magic from an uncharacteristically minimal arrangement. Even the two long numbers, “Touch” and “Giorgio by Moredor” get much better in their second halves where they lose the guest vocals and lock into their perfectly executed drum grooves. But even during these moments, I often felt like I was having fun despite the Steely Dan-esque cheesiness, not because of it. Despite their best efforts to craft a timeless album that works a singular experience a la the classic records of the 70’s, Daft Punk have ended up with a widely uneven mess. I have no doubts that “Get Lucky” will blast on repeat through high school hallways this June, but I can’t say the same for “Fragments of Time”

Grade: C

*Surprisingly, my classmates were okay with an overwrought 80’s hair metal song, mostly because of irony.
**I mentioned this song instead of “Get Lucky” because there’s no way that I need to talk to you about how good “Get Lucky” is by now.

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