It was the proverbial shot heard around the music world. Once the iTunes stream of Random Access Memories was up, it wasn’t long before the barrage of “OMG THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC” and, naturally, the “OMG THIS IS THE WORST THING I’VE EVER LISTENED TO AND I NEED TO DOUSE MY EARS WITH BATTERY ACID” posts began flooding the interwebs.
For better or worse, Daft Punk’s popularity has far transcended the boundaries of the EDM bubble thanks to a now-legendary set at Coachella 2006, the unprecedented success of their Alive 2007 tour, and, perhaps, because of their elusiveness since. Excepting the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, Random Access Memories is the first studio album from the duo in over eight years. Eight. Years. Do me a favor and let that sink in for a bit.
The album begins with the funk-laden “Give Life Back To Music,” which peppers in healthy servings of the duo’s signature robotic vocals. Though it admittedly leans a bit more on the repetitive side than I would have liked, the track is reminiscent of the Daft Punk of yore and is guaranteed to work admirably in a live setting.
My verdict on the album’s second track, “The Game Of Love,” is a resounding “Meh.” The song feels as though it’s shooting for seductive but winds up sounding more like a George Michael track if George Michael had decided to start scoring porn.
Then comes the glorious “Giorgio By Moroder,” a sprawling nine-minute homage to album collaborator and electronic legend Giovanni “Giorgio” Moroder. Although some will no doubt criticize the track’s length, it is one of my favorites from not only the album but the duo’s entire catalog. A progressive exploration of all the genres that have shaped modern house, it’s a mesmerizing opus that culminates with a stunningly structured orchestral breakdown. Should I ever be recorded on video engaging a supervillain in an epic battle, I want the second half of this song acting as the background music.
To me, the somber-yet-boring next track, “Within,” was an oddly placed one as it effectively killed my musical buzz. “Instant Crush,” which features The Strokes’ frontman Julian Casablancas, works to restore some of that momentum with its delicately layered sound that so beautifully conveys longing. It’s a dazzling song (I can’t help but think of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” when I hear those opening guitar notes, though).
Seeing as how I was pretty lukewarm on the album’s lead single, “Get Lucky,” I found myself wishing the duo’s other collaboration with Pharrell Williams, “Lose Yourself To Dance,” had been released in its stead. It’s comparably radio-friendly but offers up more in terms of song progression and complexity. Personally, though, I don’t find Pharrell’s chivalrous offer of his shirt as a perspiration absorber to be particularly sexy.
Put bluntly, “Touch” is weird. It begins as bleepy-bloopy garbled noise before Paul Williams starts belting out the opening lyrics as though he just came straight out of the Phantom of the Opera. Then comes the disco. If that sounds like it’d be jarringly disjointed, that’s because it is. The album version of the catchy lead single “Get Lucky” fares better than the radio edit, but I still found it to be a somewhat unremarkable single.
From here, the album goes on a more consistent streak. “Beyond,” another album favorite of mine, opens with an elaborate, string-filled fanfare before Daft Punk’s signature robot vocals find their way back into the album and guide you on a soothingly mellow and seductive musical path reminiscent of Chromeo but sexier. “Motherboard” will no doubt be off-putting to those whose only real exposure to electronic music is, er, Daft Punk, but it’s a starkly ambient departure from anything I’ve heard from them, and I love it for that.
While listening to “Fragments of Time,” you might recognize Todd Edwards’ vocal stylings from “Face To Face” off the duo’s sophomore release, Discovery. The former is a similarly fun and accessible tune, though I’m admittedly more partial to the latter. Animal Collective’s Panda Bear makes a guest appearance on “Doin’ It Right,” which I find to be a decent track but nothing more.
Over an hour after starting the album, we come to its final track, “Contact,” and wow, what a track. It begins innocuously enough before the organs butt in shortly before the one-minute mark. From here onward, the track becomes a progressive journey that steadily builds in sheer intensity as it rockets headfirst toward the end. It’s a face-melting banger of a track that will absolutely obliterate the crowd when it’s played live.
From a genre exploration perspective, the ground Daft Punk covers for this release is incredibly broad. Perhaps that’s what makes reviewing this particular body of work so ridiculously harrowing. Looking at the wide spectrum of genres Daft Punk delves into and the intricate production of it all, it’s plainly evident that Random Access Memories is their most ambitious album to date and understandably so since they’re essentially condensing eight years of new thoughts and influences into one package.
The inherent problem that’s presented as a result is a general lack of cohesion. The album definitely has some pretty fucking awesome moments, but it’s difficult to pick out those moments when listening to the entire album in one sitting, especially when you consider the fact that its runtime is close to 75 minutes.
It should go without saying that when you’ve had close to a decade to ruminate on a new album, expectations for its success are exponentially high. To this day I still remember the landscape-altering musical epiphany that followed my first listen of the duo’s sophomore album, Discovery, in 2001. It’s safe to say that Random Access Memories is nowhere near as transformative for me. That’s admittedly a lofty standard to be compared to, and it may not be a totally fair one, but it’s difficult not to judge musicians relative to their body of past work. In that respect, I can’t help but be a little disappointed by this release.
That being said, the strong tracks from Random Access Memories are bona fide gems. Though it’s a little early to make the call, I anticipate that “Giorgio By Moroder,” “Instant Crush,” “Beyond,” and “Contact” will rank favorably high when I look back on my favorite Daft Punk tracks. At the very least, they will undoubtedly be put on heavy rotation on my driving playlist for the next year. From a production standpoint, the album is masterfully polished, and while I don’t find it to be as listenable as their past releases as a whole, I can certainly appreciate the meticulousness that went into crafting this one.
To be clear, the album is a solid release. My downfall was expecting something more exemplary. Still, Random Access Memories will more than adequately hold me over until their next release, which will hopefully be here sooner than eight years from now.
Random Access Memories will be released on May 21st.
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