Give Life Back To Music 1.06.14: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories Posted by Sean Comer on 01.06.2014
411's Sean Comer concludes his personal retrospective through the music of Daft Punk with a look at their best-selling 2013 LP Random Access Memories!
Daft Punk Random Access Memories
In early 2013, the rumblings began gaining ground: the world would not be awaiting Daft Punk's full-fledged studio return much longer. The TRON: Legacy OST made significant waves in 2010, largely because it was more widely respected and enjoyed than the movie itself. Still, it was such a departure from the norms and objectives of their music that it just couldn't compare with jubilant, exploratory works like Homework or Discovery or even the polarizing, underperforming and experimental Human After All.
At the end of the album, it was a magnificently broad work with more grandeur than anyone was accustomed to from Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. It's just that it was a composition molded to fit and decorated to complement someone else's artistic vision.
Impressive as it was, music composed to suit anyone and anything except what their own minds conceive just doesn't feel wholly like a "Daft Punk" experience.
Three years later, they just happened to be back to business. They'd toyed with experimental, noisy rock directions. They'd demonstrated that, more than being charismatic, enigmatic doctors of the world's dance-floors, they were broadly accomplished and versatile pure composers to boot. It had felt like years since they got down to brass tacks and infused their creativity with undeniable, untainted fun.
This was just the duo retracing their steps back to what made their first two albums so lovable. This is Daft Punk unearthing their roots. These are Random Access Memories.
Random Access Memories
RELEASED: May 13, 2013
Artistic crossroads like this could hardly be considered "rare" among veteran artists working in any medium.
Just prior to this retrospective, I extensively surveyed how Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin tore Cash's performance down to the barest elements and sensibilities of his earliest recordings, returning the soul of the man to every song's surface in the process.
During his own 90s career resurgence, Eric Clapton shifted into "Reverse" and energized his own music with a new-old vitality. Before his acclaimed, defining MTV Unplugged performance, Clapton's most recent successful album had been Behind the Sun, a very 80s, synth-dressed work produced by Phil Collins. Long before either, he'd dabbled in country-tinged rock, roots and reggae experimentation, and of course bluesy psychedelic jams. However, toward the century's end, it was the traditional blues collection From the Cradle that displayed a reinvigorated Clapton at his purest and playing the music that captivated him from the moment he first held a six-string.
I'll even be exceptionally kind, right here and right now, to an album that I loathe with the fire of every herpes outbreak on Miley Cyrus' CDC-quarantined lady bits: sloppy and utterly offensive to the ears as it is, Metallica had their hearts in the right place scaling back their ambitions in the incubation of St. Anger. Hey, come Death Magnetic, they'd actually dialed things in a bit and consequently delivered everything that the preceding album should've/could've been.
That's not to say that no artist should ever stray and experiment beyond what clearly works. That's an EZ-bake recipe for stagnation and complacency. Speaking as someone who makes his living on the back of his creativity, there just comes a point when a glance into the rear-view stabilizes you. Once you've gone back and experienced the comfortable groove of your comfort zone, you fuel yourself with a potent blend of confident momentum ("Hey, I just remembered: I can create something unique and moving!") and the caution of informed limitations (Music from "The Elder", anybody who lets Ja Rule or Nelly sing.)
If Random Access Memories never stops sounding familiar to you, that's good. It should feel familiar. Thomas and Guy-Manuel revisited the bright energy that composed Discovery and molded it anew like a malleable raw material, like clay on a potter's wheel. The album takes that engaging, charismatic temperament and subs out horns and thoroughly modern dance rhythms for a solid-gold throwback to the shiny synth pop and vibrant disco that drew them to music in the first place.
Let me ask you something: in the five weeks now that I've been compiling this particular retrospective, have you paused a moment to watch that YouTube clip beneath the signature .GIF of the dancing, humping lady? Even more than the official video for the album's premiere single, "Get Lucky", that clip just crystalizes every electric thread that runs through this album: 74:24 of crystalized fun in which the Soul Train dance line lives again. How doesn't something that carefree waft through your thoughts?
Cementing the authenticity of their direction, Daft Punk employed a few additional hands that bore the stuff under their fingernails that painted the genuine-article sound in the first place decades ago most notably, funk and disco legend Nile Rogers, pioneering synth composer (and author of Brian de Palma's Scarface score) Giorgio Moroder and powerful 70s singer-songwriter Paul Williams (he of Phantom of the Paradise fame.) For good measure, they also threw in a few performers who aren't genuine articles of the 70s or 80s synth and dance scenes but feel astonishingly at home nonetheless. We'll get to them as we come to them.
The world fell in love with "Get Lucky" without hesitation, and hey, no argument to be found here. To be perfectly honest, though, it was different when I first dove into the album. "Get Lucky" was absorbing every ounce of the buzz it was tapped to generate, but for me, it was a lot like the story of how I met my ex-fiancée: I was digging the blonde in the lecture hall, but the only open seat was next to the cute redhead. The rest was 10 years of history.
The moment that I heard "Give Life Back To Music", I briefly ceased to remember that "Get Lucky" awaited me. The song just flares into life without a hesitant step, all emphatic guitar and synth blazing. From there, it settles into this comfortable, irresistible disco cruise that rides on Nile Rogers' smoothed-out production and guitar work like the gleaming rims on a '72 Deuce. "Let the music in tonight, just turn on the music/let the music of your life give life back to music," those oh-so-missed vocals dressed in vocoder tempts us. Give it a try. Right now. Go listen to the song via the link at the top of the page. I guarantee you, for the next 4:34, you will come up with no damn good reason why nobody had put Daft Punk and Nile Rogers into a studio together sooner than this.
Remember how I once mentioned that Daft Punk seem to have a quota that follows each album one slow jam that's more than a little bit out of step with everything else, but is ultimately just too damn good to leave off the set? That's "Game of Love" for you.
SEAN'S NOTE: Right hand to God, I had NO IDEA until I sat down to write this and YouTube-searched the song title that someone had set a short film to this song. I think that I want to live in this 5:25 for at least one moment per week.
It down-shifts the mood only a track into the album, but this is almost shockingly tender definitely not something that a more prejudiced listener would expect. It's a moody lament and the short film above captures exactly what happens almost any time that I hear it. Time, movement, feeling and even thought snap into a methodical clarity. I have time to take in everything around me. It's something subtle that Daft Punk did particularly well previously on the TRON: Legacy OST: grant every part of the music enough space around it to appreciate it. Make the most of even a little silence instead of making every arrangement into a cacophony. It's an art that's lost in a greater spectrum than simply EDM. It's rare that anything creative anymore really displays an appreciation for sparing words, but making every word's tone say all that's needed.
If there's a place where the album grinds to a bit of a frustrating halt, it's "Giorgio by Moroder". It's just over nine minutes dominated by the legendary composer and synth pioneer reflecting upon how he came to love making music. A respectful tribute, both in style and the use of the man's own narration? Sure. But it's definitely one of the few tracks that can be skipped without missing much.
I'll give "Giorgio" this, though, and echo the same with almost every other song on the album: unlike Human After All, the tracks all go somewhere. The way some of the longer ones that extend past the five-minute mark meander can demand a little bit of patience and a lot of benefit of a doubt. I'm looking right at you, "Touch" and "Contact". Even then, they're intriguing songs if you don't have anywhere to be. It's the difference between writing music to fit an ideal time stamp and just giving the music and words all the space that they need to say what they need to say.
Take "Within", for example. It's this minimalist existential ballad that clocks in at an album-shortest 3:49. The opening piano melody, left almost entirely unto itself before the digitized vocals gently enter, is quite beautiful. So is the delicate high-hat and keyboards that follow it. Everything settles so well into place that you might almost feel a little bit sad when the song ends not for what it's said, but just that it's over. Then again, I quickly realized that there was just nothing left to utter that would be worth padding it out another minute or so.
It's just right.
SEAN'S NOTE: Once more, not an "official" music video. Just a cutting together of "Within" with selected footage from the Human After All-inspired movie Electroma.
"Instant Crush" was the third single from the album, and it's one of the few tracks toward which I'm a bit ambivalent. Even then, I have to give it credit: it's the most tolerable that I've ever found Julian Casablancas. See? Even at its lower points, the album is still pretty lovable. Really, though, it's just a way station en route to our first taste of the magic that is Pharrell Williams alongside Daft Punk.
The second single, "Lose Yourself to Dance", is a kindred spirit to "Get Lucky", what with Rogers' razor-sharp guitar and Williams butter-smooth upper register against some old-school handclaps. Really, if there were ever a jukebox musical offshoot from this album, this one and "Get Lucky" could almost tell a tale of building attraction between two leads.
Well ..kinda. See, if it were to follow the album order, it would be suddenly thrown down a few speeds by the sweeping grandeur of "Touch" between them.
Paul Williams brings the kind of dramatic, sentimental anguish to his performance that really makes it compelling as it transforms itself throughout all of its eight minutes. It takes on the face of an almost space-age ballad of an android trying to reduce one of man's basic five senses to words, but finding that the ecstasy expresses better through floods of sound. First, it's droning digital blips that halt as Williams begins his sensitive crooning. Then, without warning, it breaks into Rogers' familiar funky vibe of skittering high-hat and "wah"-drenched guitar as Williams tries to sum up the lightning in a kiss. The move into a dazzling horn-and-piano jam is a little bit easier, but still gives a sense of a destination.
Midway through, it slows way down again into a digitized-voice-and-grinding-drums bridge, just to give the ambitious arrangement somewhere from which to build again up to another dizzying high. Somehow, the intimidating eight-minute length feels just right by the time we circle back to Williams' sensitive timbre building briefly to a rising urgency.
C'mon, though. You know why you bought this album.
To be honest, I've never been the biggest Pharrell fan. I've just come to understand how he's best utilized. Much like Nate Dogg, I wouldn't have much interest in an entire album by him. I have no idea why, but I just know that I wouldn't and I say this as someone who actually owns a N.E.R.D. album. However, he rarely delivers an off-day providing a tantalizing hook.
He's sort of like music's Val Venis or Shane Douglas: entertaining enough up to a certain capacity, but Great God in Heaven, not somebody to build a main event around.
Music sometimes can sink so much exhausting effort into being important or revolutionary that it loses one critical, common thread: music was meant to be felt deeply and, at some way or another at some level or other, enjoyed. Maybe it didn't always make people happy; America's oldest blues and spirituals weren't born of exalting the joys of working the fields. Still, they awoke the spirit. They sent life coursing through a dying, weary part of the soul. They took people away from suffering and sadness without end and showed them invincible freedom.
To this day, even when we lift up hymns at funerals, we sing them not to make ourselves sad but to remind us of a peaceful, better place where the sick are made strong again and nevermore grow old. Our hearts sometimes reach out for a sad song because we just want something that reminds us, "Nobody's suffering is unique."
Then again, there are albums like this. For fuck's sake, everybody, let's just have fun every now and then. Just savor some things for exactly what they are, no more and no less. Drink the Diet Coke contrary to every nagging you've heard in the last 10 years or so, the next sip won't give you Super Cancer. Eat the red meat and suck down the milk, even if you think you might've maybe tasted a molecule of growth hormone the butterfly effect doesn't work that way. Dance your ass off if you want to when you die, like with so many things, you don't take your "cool" with you.
And finally, on a related note to that last part ..if you find something likable, fucking like it. Trust me, the Internet should be sponsored by Craftsman for the sheer variety of Grade-A tools it holds; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and even 411mania WILL NOT implode in horrible heaps of flaming doom because there is one less bored shithead who takes pride in pissing and moaning more than a gall stone patient.