Random Access Memories is, without a doubt, Daft Punk’s most ambitious album to date. It has also been subject to one of the most impressive and extensive marketing campaigns in recent memory. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have steered the hype surrounding their album to a point that would have been alarming for many other artists. Such magnitude of anticipation will assure the commercial success of the record, but it also leaves it vulnerable to a devastating sense of anticlimax. In the event, Random Access Memories has effectively managed to fulfill expectations – but only for those who expected the unexpected.
If you were craving club anthems in the vein of “Around the World” or “Digital Love” then your first listen will be unsatisfying. The robots always offer us surprising new ways of conceptualising music, and at times this can be off-putting. We should remember, however, that the duo warned us of this change in direction. They are discontented, they say, with the state of electronic music (ironic enough, given that it is substantially their own creation); and they still see great conflict between technology and music, a theme that has obsessed them since the ‘90s. Just as Homework and Discovery transformed our lives, Random Access Memories aims to revive the movement that started it all, using the remnants from the dying scene that is electronic dance music.
“Give Life Back to Music” opens the 74-minute record with a title that perfectly encapsulates the purpose of the entire album. The calibre of production is immediately obvious, with crisp clear keys and guitars, deep bass, and powerful percussion. Incredible moments include “Within,” which is curiously reminiscent of the scene in Wall-E that has the two robots dancing in space (though perhaps a more appropriate vision would show Wall-E floating wistfully alone with the track playing in the background). There is also “Instant Crush” which features what may well be Julian Casablancas’ most touching and ethereal performance of his career. “Lose Yourself to Dance” repackages disco, complete with all the genre’s potential to invade and possess its listeners with joyous abandon. “Get Lucky” and “Fragments of Time” also embody this concept, and manage to be very compelling despite seeming overly formulaic in their arrangements.
The more ambitious tracks are “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Touch”. The former is a tribute to the electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and bravely features spoken word – as well as some rather awkward arrangements of pauses and crescendos. Musically, however, Daft Punk expose themselves entirely in this track. “Touch,” meanwhile, is immensely emotional, taking its listener on a search for the very same “something more” that vocalist Paul Williams yearningly describes. He sings with honesty and with soul, and this is a true display of the level of musicianship underneath the robotic helmets.
At times the robots seem to have blindly lost themselves in the process of making music. The tracks “The Game of Love” and “Beyond” seem aimless and feel almost out of place. At best they feel like fantastic lobby music, but not much more – well-polished, but difficult to connect with emotionally.
The album ends with “Doin’ it Right” and the epic “Contact”. By this point it feels almost as if the duo have been desperately craving to deliver dance tracks, bizarrely enough. “Doin’ it Right” presents a fascinating contrast in style between Panda Bear and the robots. “Contact” is an embodiment of the robots’ unparalleled ability to deliver monumental climaxes, and with it, I am honestly lost for words. It is such a colossal track that it needs to be heard to be understood. It brilliantly ends too early, and leaves us with that all too familiar desire: the eternal and insatiable thirst for more robot music.
This is an iconic album, which attempts to do away with all the usual the barriers of genre, language and geography. It defies and challenges the current state of electronic dance music, and it sets the stage for something new to emerge. If you’re searching for something that doesn’t sound like anything out there at the moment, this record is for you.