Give Life Back To Music 12.23.13: Daft Punk - Human After All Posted by Sean Comer on 12.23.2013
411's Sean Comer continues his personal retrospective of the music of Daft Punk with the duo's rock-flavored 2005 LP Human After All!
Daft Punk Human After All
Welcome back, everyone, to Give Life Back To Music. More specifically, welcome to the rough halfway point of DAFTCEMBER, my look back at the four full-length albums and one acclaimed original score of Daft Punk's curious career.
With Discovery and Homework, the French duo one big engaging statement of identity: their music would be envisioned on their terms and on key with their sensibilities only, unexpectedly thoughtful electronic dance music that embraced the intent and order of structure over a frenetic digital maelstrom, but that retained an undeniable spirit of unabashed fun. Though Discovery retained a cooler, more industrial heaviness and roughness to its sound in places, Homework was nothing less than a jubilant walk in the sun.
In both cases, Daft Punk took addictive melodies and their signature digitally affected vocals and ran with them into oppositely but equally effective directions. The most justifiable curiosity as Human After All loomed on the horizon in March 2005: where would they next carry their adaptable, original aesthetic?
What the world got wasn't by any stretch a "bad" album in my estimation, Daft Punk haven't released one yet but it's important to remember that, in the words of Sir Paul McCartney, "Y'know, they can't all be crackerjack tippery-top. Sometimes, you make a stinkery-doo."
OK. That was actually Dana Carvey's interpretation of the time he met McCartney from Carvey's Critics' Choice HBO special. Still, it fits. Not exactly stinkery-doo, but just short of crackerjack-tippery-top.
So pop the top on some sudsy-wudsies, roll a little hempy-doobie and let yer face go a little bit funny. It's time to dig deep into Human After All and ask ourselves, can creative ambition unfortunately lead some artists to overplay their hands and venture beyond the building blocks of their most enjoyable works?
RELEASED: March 3, 2001
To say the least, Human After All both feeds upon and suffers for unmatched ambition. Actually, had a few decisions been made a bit differently throughout its genesis, the creative process might've birthed somewhat of a different work as a whole. I leave it to all of you to decide whether "different" would've mean "more" or "less" enjoyable.
This is an excellent juncture at which we can discuss "concept." My definition isn't academically informed but simply my very general take: a piece of "concept" art conveys a vision that's greater than the sum of its part, intended to be appreciated as a whole. Two things above all other influential factors, speaking strictly from my own opinion, sway whether or not a concept album is inviting enough to be enjoyed. One can be helped. The other can't, and actually will probably never change.
Not every audience quite embraces the bombast. Ever hear artists and even some fans complain about listeners who only care about good singles, who are just "too dumb" to muster the thought to deeply ponder songs and albums? Well, those would be the very fans that loathe Coheed and Cambria, can't manufacture any enthusiasm for Pink Floyd's The Wall or listen to five minutes of Garth Brooks' "Chris Gaines" experiment without itching to drunkenly bellow "Friends in Low Places" off-key at 3-fucking-a.m. while bumbling down Main Street.
As I can only wish all things in life could be elaborated upon, allow me to present a better explanation through the prism of This is Spinal Tap: Remember the disinterested "WTF, mate?!" reaction of the outdoor festival crowd to the lads' decision to perform the rambling "Jazz Odyssey" for an audience expecting arena metal? Remember the absolute clown-shoes failure of the druidic-mysticism epic "Stonehenge" that never quite translated live as the band envisioned it through rose-colored specs? Those are examples of satire capturing pretty closely the more ridiculous outcomes in perception and reception of concept music.
(NOTE: I'd have loved to have actually provided video of these two moments from the movie. Sadly, remnants of both seems to have been stricken from YouTube and I just didn't have the time to capture video from my DVD, rip it to my hard drive, chop it out of the capture and upload it.)
That brings me to the second mandatory piece of an enjoyable concept album: good songs. I can't distract myself forever with the defense that everything is a part of a greater whole. At some point, suck is suck. Period. Coheed and Cambria are actually pretty capable musical storytellers. Their songs can be remarkably versatile. They fulfill their born purposes of relating chapters of a bigger narrative, but are equally as enjoyable standing alone and subjected to interpretation through the listener's own experiences.
Take "Wake Up", for example.
Generally speaking, it's a singular moment in Coheed's ongoing epic story spanning several albums. Originally, it was written by lead singer Claudio Sanchez after an achingly difficult parting from his girlfriend to venture out once again on tour with the band. By the by, though, the version I chose to embed? That's from the Snakes on a Plane soundtrack.
Just to put a fine point on it, my experience with the song and that particular version, actually is very much akin to the one from which Sanchez crafted the song: it was given to me as a part of a very tender mix by the love of my life, with whom I was in a long-distance relationship at the time. To this day, I've shed tears at it, felt it give my spirits flight and experienced the swell of memories that always follow it at the very first chords.
On the other hand, there's Music From "The Elder" by Kiss. Points for trying, I suppose, but Kiss have never been a fraction as creatively sound as Gene Simmons would have anyone with a millionth of a brain believe and they just didn't have the songwriting chops to make this ambitious concept fly. To really drive things home, the band's business manager officially requested that his company's name be removed entirely from anything associated with the work, guitarist Ace Frehley was all "Not just no, HELL NO!" right from the very start and left the band shortly after the album's release, and producer Bob Ezrin later admitted that he only went wholly along with this cockamamie idea due to being zonked enough on blow to see backward in time and space.
So, where does Human After All fall on a spectrum ranging from Pink Floyd's The Wall (glorious, sprawling and indulgent) to Music From "The Elder" or Garth Brooks' The Life and Times of Chris Gaines ("Monkey Jesus the Sweet Simian Savior, you spent actual money to make this? Did you lose a bet?")? Give or take, somewhere in between the poles.
In truth, this was one ambitiously reaching project that coalesced pretty damn quickly. It's a decidedly under-the-radar bit of trivia for those who don't follow Daft Punk devoutly, but TRON: Legacy wasn't exactly the first time the duo's music became the soundtrack or basis of a film.
Kinda. Sort of.
Prior even to TRON: Legacy, the boys leant selections from Discovery to an anime collaboration called Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem directed by Kazuhisa Takenouchi. After that, they took the realization of Human After All in yet another ambitious direction. Here, I'm going to briefly defer to one of my favorite Internet-based critics, Paw Dugan of Channel Awesome/That Guy With The Glasses. As he's about to explain, Daft Punk actually collaborated on Electroma, a full-length, odd film complementing the themes of the album (without incorporating much of a soundtrack even of their own music), which I'll elaborate on momentarily. It's not that I'm too lazy to comment on it myself. Far from it.
It's just that Paw outlines the scope of the film and its attachment to the album that well. Seriously. When you're done here, I strongly recommend checking out especially his Music Movies series.
In tandem, Electroma and Human After All set out to color in Daft Punk's personas of interstellar androids capable only of making music on their own terms and within their own interpretations because they hadn't yet been naturally assimilated into the accepted human-societal conventions that typically color pop music the way most human artists are throughout maturity. The idea being, their unique approach has a particular authenticity because, well, it's all that they know.
Augmenting music by pouring it through a character prism presents a precarious challenge. The theatrics degrade into transparent schlock pretty quickly if the emphasis on them begins detracting from or overshadowing the music itself. David Bowie didn't just effectively walk the tightrope in his younger days motherfucker danced a cha-cha across it. It was never easy to tell when Jim Morrison was "in character" and when he was just being "Jim." Alice Cooper trumped Kiss in that his music was far better.
Then again, Marilyn Manson was made pretty quickly for being more sizzle than steak. Nicki Minaj teeters on self-parody. Lady Gaga is a true shame because her always-on antics detract from what is actually fascinating talent just beneath the surface.
I'll get more into this in a few weeks, but Daft Punk have almost never gone so strange and avant-garde with their "characters" that the quality of the music couldn't overcome it except with Electroma and this album. As Paw explained, the movie tried to take the five-minute music video concept for the album's title track and extend it into a 75-minute film that explored the Daft Punk "characters." Had the album really augmented and complemented this concept with solid, catchy songs, this could've actually been revolutionary.
For one thing, the album was allegedly recorded within a stunningly brisk six-week span from September-November 2004. Look at this in one of two ways: true, these two have always uncompromisingly released music only once they've found satisfaction with it; if they were thoroughly appeased with the minimalist-rock direction after just a month and a half, then that's their prerogative. On the other hand, they're also two of music's most notorious perfectionists, making a six-week production period seem curiously rushed when looked at from the outside.
Homework was the wavy reflection of nightclub neon in Friday-night rain on a street at 10 p.m., rough, distorted bass rumbling through a downtown bar's walls. Discovery was one big blast of midday summer sunshine, sweetened with bright horns and warm, celebratory tones. Human After All is .
That's not entirely fair. I actually quite enjoy the title-track opener. It's apparent from the start that this is Daft Punk indulging more rock sensibilities than love-letters to disco, funk and artsier synth-pop. The song cruises forward driven by steady eighth-note guitar rhythms and easily the most overbearing presence yet of vocoder-addled vocals. In fact, the distorted din seems to take the place of any meaningful bass line.
Unfortunately, it's also the first permutation of a problem that pops up again and again throughout the album: it lacks the signature Daft Punk evolution of melody throughout a song. It's maybe the most repetitive single up to this point and just never seems to go anywhere meaningful or interesting. Typically, there's something dynamic in the repetition to further things, but here? It's more meme than music.
Still, it's far and away better than "The Prime Time of Your Life" ever gets to be.
There's "fun with distortion." Then again, there's "sounds like either rhythmic farts or an asthmatic sucking the last remnants of a triple-thick milkshake from the bottom of a cup." This would be one of the rare instances of a Daft Punk track possessing virtually no elements that should be classified as "music."
Keeping with the hit-or-miss progression (or complete absence of progress), "Robot Rock" seems to get things briefly back on track by copping the feel of "Da Funk" from Homework and setting it to a thudding guitar-rock backing at a heavy-but-driven tempo. Unfortunately, it's the same conundrum as "Human After All": like Cameron leaving the accelerator on his dad's car floored in Ferris Bueller's Day Off to roll back the odometer while it's shifted into neutral, the wheels spin like hell but never go anywhere.
Of course, there's then "Steam Machine", which reverts right back to 5:30 or so of stupid noises. Sorry, I don't mean to give the impression that I'm suddenly 12 years old again, but it really is like digital flatulence set to a beat. "Make Love" follows it up with trying to bring music back to the album's "music" by fulfilling each Daft Punk album's quota of having at least one somewhat introspective tune. It's drums, piano and haunting vocals for about five minutes, and it works well enough.
Hey, want to guess where they went next with "The Brainwasher"?
Nicest thing I can say about this one? It has a sort of dark drama to it that makes it feel like the soundtrack to an 8-bit NES boss battle that never happened. It's like something that would've made good enough incidental music in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
Ugh. It isn't an abjectly horrible album. It's frustrating, is what it is. They were reaching for something grandiose, and deserve points for thinking big. OK, maybe just for the former and a solid "C" for the latter. Again, if in their digital hearts of hearts they can say that they were really satisfied, then great. For any creative mind, that's what matters at the end of the day. The album just doesn't come across that way.
It's inconsistent and preoccupied with everything about EDM that Daft Punk always seemingly defied: droning, directionless cacophony. It just isn't enjoyable and often doesn't even feel that musical. Above all else, music, from an audience's standpoint, is meant to be enjoyed and savored on some level or another. The emotions evoked may differ, but we're meant to leave bigger than when we came in kinda like walking away from a buffet. This just left me feeling like I hadn't eaten.
Of course, it would then be another five years until we heard the kinda-sorta next Daft Punk album. It would be worth the wait, though. What we'd get would remind the world just how broad their horizons could really be. It would also put them right back onto the map and position them to eventually release nothing less than a return to form just this past year.
We're halfway home, kids. We have two more releases to discuss, and then I'm going to spend a full column discussing the unreasonable prejudices and snobbery that some heap onto Daft Punk also, why I sometimes see whence the naysayers come.
Thanks for stopping by, kids. Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas. Have a merry Christmas.