Abhimanyu Meer dissects Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, track-by-track.
With so much amazing music going around, it’s hard to gauge what really is great, what will really stand the test of time. Coupled with a world that is increasingly attention deficit especially when it comes to music, we have truly stopped paying attention to an album as a whole body of work, something bigger than the sum of its parts. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is a classic album in that sense. It’s got something for everybody individually (in its musicality), and for everybody united (in its message). Reviewing such a cohesive piece of work as one didn’t make sense. I knew after the first listen (just last night) that it was an album that would grow on me over time, so we’re gonna go through the album, track-by-track, and leave a more generalized review for later. Sit tight.
The organic drum flourish that kicks off ‘Give Life Back To Music’ segues into the disco Daft Punk resurrected with ‘Get Lucky’, complete with robotized vocals. It’s another disco anthem they’ve created that’ll rule club playlists for a while, because, well, where have all the discos gone? If you like disco and rock ‘n’ roll, this is a very palatable clusterfuck of the two genres. Did I mention it’s an anthemic singalong (like a bulk of the album will be)? This sounds a lot like ‘Get Lucky’ and they could blend into each other seamlessly.
In ‘The Game Of Love’, Daft Punk go straight for hypnosis. Starting with a drowning, mechanized vocal crooning about heartbreak and lost love, this is a really sad love song that exudes groove, sex and heat. I think it’s like ‘Something About Us’, the Random Access Memories version. There is still space in this world for soulful, groove-based love songs that shoot for the kill – the heart.
‘Giorgio By Moroder’ has a vocal lead-in by Giorgio Moroder, with even more palatable disco in the background, talking about how the Moog Modular allowed him to break the boundaries he thought existed in music. The timely (obviously) drop following his lead into the click track then takes you to Tron dimension, my favorite Daft Punk dimension. The 4/4 house beat that accompanies the synthesizer is basically in there to guarantee the song has dance-floor legs. The delicate synth melody floating in the background then turns into a sweet neo-jazz number before a more processed-sounding 4/4 comes back. “Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do what you want. Nobody told me what to do and there was no preconception of what to do.” Space-age psychedelia then meets a jazz kit. There is no genre here. Nothing to classify this song because 30 seconds later, there’s a overdriven guitar solo before a chakra-opening bass frequency pulls you out of the song, and out of the spell.
The piano melody introducing ‘Within’ is hauntingly beautiful and the downtempo love ballad is a desperate hymn about being completely helpless, paralyzed, lost. Lyrics are taking a more prominent role in the music of this album. The drowning vocal track goes, “There’s a world within me that I cannot explain.” Could this be the duo talking about their personalities as leather-clad robots? Are a robot’s thoughts being channelled through this song? You decide.
Take out the cascading synth in the background, and ‘Instant Crush’ sounds like a song by The Strokes, and it’s fair to assume Julian Casablancas had his share of inputs in the production of this song. Casablanca’s vocoded falsetto is refreshing after an othwerise spotty last few years in indie rock. Disco is once again the backbone of this song with its strength lying in its subject matter that presumably deals with a turbulent relationship that Casablanca’s been scarred by. If you can relate and listen carefully, this will envelop you.
More than most groups, Daft Punk recognize the cyclical nature of dance floor music. The duo collaborate with Pharrell Williams for ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, 2013′s second most popular disco anthem after ‘Get Lucky’. You can hear The Neptunes in here, which makes sense because funk and disco are the two schools they borrow from heavily. The lyrics are genuinely heartfelt in their urgency, so fitting of many of us that look at the dance floor with sacred reverence. Towards the end, the vocal track going “Everybody on the floor” is reminiscent of Homework-era singalongs. And you’d wish you’d hear some French house, but by now you’ve already guessed that it’s sonic exploration and experimentation that Daft Punk have gone for, with equal nods to their past and what they see to be the future. They are innovators after all. And robots.
‘Touch’ is the second big experiment after ‘Giorgio’, and I can’t believe I just said experiment because it seems like the songs above were already a part of the Daft Punk discography before R.A.M.. Starting off with more intergalactic exploration, Paul Williams sings along to a sorrowful triad on piano, after which we hear a sexy space keyboard solo that goes back into the familiar disco with more live instrumentation, saxophone included. It’s a beautifully crafted song, danceable and very introspective. When it slows down to just before its ending verse, you hear, “If love is the answer, then you hold on,” then the same by a choir, and that pretty much seals the deal.
I talked ‘Get Lucky’ (Radio Edit) in this piece about how its lyrics may come to define a generation of nocturnal scene kids, and the album cut is quite similar, if about minute and a half longer. With extended sections of Pharrell’s vocal tracks that float above the piano line, Nile Rodgers’ ‘The Hitmaker’ Stratocaster comes back with disco chord triads. This and the rest of Daft Punk’s intergalactic disco music will be likely called “retro” a few decades from now, in the same retro way that ‘Stayin’ Alive’ has stayed alive. Timeless, a lot of this.
More Tron-era orchestral music is back on ‘Beyond’ where Daft Punk don’t kid you around. ‘Beyond’, literally and figuratively, speaks of life and music beyond what we perceive them to be. The melancholia expressed through the lyrics here fit the hypnotic minimalistic bass line and drums. “Your home’s a promise long forgotten, it is the birthplace of your dreams,” croons a robot about love being the holy mission, the journey of the soul.
‘Motherboard’ sees them in Tron territory again, before they go right into nu-jazz, Cinematic Orchestra-style, this time with a focus on little noises. Without good cans or speakers, you might miss the cinematic bubbling and burning placed throughout the track. “If I had my way I would never leave, turning our days into melodies.” The words are honest, gladly welcomed into a world where superficiality rules the pop charts and electronic music has been reduced to drop-a-thons.
‘Fragments Of Time’ could be disco Steely Dan. But who would have thought of a possible disco-meets-Steely Dan sound other than Daft Punk? The first clear reference to the album’s title in made in this song, and Todd Edwards, who sang on ‘Face To Face’, is singing about regurgitating memories that prove to be timeless. The end of this song sees the first ‘Digital Love’-esque solo flourishes from Daft Punk. Once again, words take center stage.
‘Doin’ It Right’ could turn out to be the most remixed song off Random Access Memories. With a seductive hip-hop beat starting of as a slow jam and eventually moving into a house 4/4 and a singalong not quite like ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’. It’s great, but I can’t help but wish they would have robotized all the vocal tracks instead of just one, if only to guarantee that Daft Punk-vocoder-generated release of euphoria in the listener. ‘Doin It Right’ is yet another glass raised to the creatures of the night. “If you lose your way tonight that’s how you know the magic is right” is what Panda Bear sings. That’ll be all please.
‘Contact’ is a grand song. It’s the ‘Aerodynamic’ of 2013 (similar in the way its towering solo finally meets the rhythm section; but obviously lacking clear elements of house). It directly references space travel, contact made with earth from a ship out there somewhere. I can’t begin to even stress how liberating this song is in terms of feeling. It’s my favorite song off the album, and it’s epic in that ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ kinda way. Then, we hear the mimicking of a spacecraft crashing down and through all the compression you can almost hear a slightly processed house beat that then turns into krautrock-esque noise. They’ve finally made contact.
If you can afford yourself the time to experience the album for its sheer musical shine, you can’t ever be disappointed. Sonically, it’s a dream and I stress on dream because it unfolds like one – open-ended, unexpected, full of surprises. The only advice I have to a first time listener is to use a great set of headphones or listen like I did for the first time, on 5.1. The true depth of the sound and instrumentation on Random Access Memories will elude a sub-standard sound system.
It also goes without saying that Daft Punk will release an album of remixes more catered towards those who might call them out for not being house-y enough, the approach that took them from France to the world stage. It’ll happen, soon. But until then, lose yourself.