Random Access Memories Critique Essay

It’s bizarre to realise, but even a quick glance towards Wikipedia is enough to point out that Daft Punk have released barely anything of real importance for over a decade. The last time they felt as big as their reputation was back when Discovery ruled the world’s airwaves in the early '00s. Ever since then it’s been a serious of diminishing returns and largely forgotten releases: the deeply flawed though rather underrated Human After All only ever gets a mention when people discuss how disappointing it was, the buzz around the Tron soundtrack died down quickly after people realised it was a movie soundtrack rather than a proper Daft Punk album, and barely anyone even knows there’s a few remix albums and compilations floating around.

The only time they’ve made a ripple during the past ten years has been their famous tour in the latter half of the '00s (documented in the Alive 2007 live album). From atop their glowing pyramid, Daft Punk brought electronic dance music back into the large-scale live concert setting and at the same time redefined what was expected from such concerts. It’s the legacy of their actions like that where their importance and reputation are built on. While the French duo have been barely active for years, everything they have done from their music to their live performances to their visuals have had a huge impact on mainstream electronic music as a whole, laying down the groundwork for the EDM craze of the last few years.

And so here they are, returning from their long-time absence to a world where they have visibly left their mark, eagerly awaited by not only long-time fans but all the new audiences who have been attracted to them due to the constant presence of their shadow. The EDM scene has waited for their icons for so long to show a new way onward, but in a surprise twist Daft Punk have no interest in what’s happening right now. In interviews they’ve seemed almost dismissive of the modern state of dance music, berating its cold and mechanical nature and showing no desire to work within it. Unsurprisingly, they’ve chosen to ignore the present and look behind, returning to sounds long gone rather than continuing what they began.

They’ve moved onto a sound they have described as more warm and organic, the '70s and early '80s and, in particular, the disco part of that era, and they've replaced their electronic gadgets with live instruments and retro synthesizers. While the '70s-'80s disco scene has always flowed in Daft Punk’s veins, with Discovery especially being somewhat of a tribute to it by sampling songs from the period and bringing them back to the modern day, Random Access Memories takes a step further and wants to be the real deal rather than just a tribute. Daft Punk have drafted legends of the era like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder into the studio and utilised instruments of the period to craft their music. It’s two disco fanatics fulfilling their wild desires and ambitions, ignoring what everyone else is doing or saying.

Sounds self-indulgent? It is. Random Access Memories carries all the signs of an album where no one outside its creators was allowed to say a word and which has been perfectionistically worked on for years in the depths of studios. It’s 75 minutes long, carries songs so ambitious they veer on pretentious in shape of multi-part suites and extended jams built around spoken word passages, treats ideas and sounds normally brushed off as corny or dated with respect and love and generally shows zero regard to what anyone might think about it. And unlike what you’d expect from what is at first glance a disco album, it’s not particularly dancey either. On surface it might be an album heavily rooted in one of the most iconic dance sounds of the recent music history, but in its essence Random Access Memories is more of an auteur album designed to tickle your brain rather than move your feet: a record created by two music nerds for their own fun rather than to get people to boogie for one more time. The more you listen the more you realise that in the end it’s not a disco album per se, but an exercise in revitalising the studio wizardry of the era.

This could be a bad thing, and often Random Access Memories feels like the concept, the ideas and the self-indulgence came first and the actual album came second. This is most notable in the how the album flows, or rather, how it doesn’t. Despite the shared aesthetics, there’s a grand amount of different moods and sounds going on throughout the 13 songs and they never fit together. The flow of the album is one of constant stops and starts and mismatched pairs, grinding down to a halt just as the party gets going and pairing up tracks with no logical continuity between one another. It feels like the album is always on shuffle and random tracks pop up whenever they please, which leads to a jarring listening experience that doesn't always do justice to the songs. The album’s self-described heart and centrepiece “Touch” represents this a bit too well. It bounces from one excellent part to another, moving from jazzy disco to beautiful choral ballads and more in mere moments, but it sounds like leftover parts put together awkwardly. Much like the album itself, it’s a composite of great parts which move from one another in an awkward, constantly halting in a way that does not let the strength of its individual parts shine. You can’t help but feel like you’re listening to an untidy pile of ideas; a feeling that stretches throughout the album.

The important thing, however, is that these ideas are genuinely great and often seriously impressive. Daft Punk have mastered the art of the hook and here that talent has been mixed with artistic ambition to create songs that are often downright impressive musical statements, while the production carries a depth and warmth previously unheard on a Daft Punk album. The lead single “Get Lucky” shows as much, as it acts like a greatest hits collection of every great musical building block of disco, taking all the elements associated with the genre and bringing them together in a masterful, effortless way that sounds both timeless and positively throwback. It’s not far away from old earworms like “Da Funk” or “One More Time”, but this time it’s armed with a smooth bass riff and flowing groove very unlikely the robotic rhythms of the past. It also makes the surprising revelation that Pharrell Williams, who does the vocals both on “Get Lucky” as well as the infectious slow groove “Lose Yourself to Dance”, is secretly a disco king who’s been waiting for all this time to emerge.

“Instant Crush” and “Fragments of Time” play with sounds that would sound natural in the cheesy depths of an AOR radio station, but they manage to evoke all the nostalgia of those sounds lovingly without falling into cringe. The former, in particular, is a brilliant bittersweet torchsong where the heavily processed vocals by Julian Casablancas sound more in form than ever in his time with the Strokes. The calmer moments like “Beyond” and “The Game of Love” take things towards the evocative, filling the air with suave, spacey soundscapes that really come alive when you put the headphones on. The greatest of all is “Giorgio by Moroder”, the real centrepiece of the album, a nine-minute journey through the life of the man in the title, narrated by Moroder himself with the music adapting in style and detail to his unfolding story. The result is such a fantastic journey through various moods and sounds that you’ll easily forgive how it starts out sounding like a Spotify advert. In many ways it’s a condensed version of the entire album’s statement: treating the past with respect and resurrecting it with love. While the album doesn't quite support its massive length, the only real letdown among the 13 songs is the the Panda Bear-featuring “Doin’ It Right”, which abandons the album’s concept entirely both in style and in production (being the only fully electronic track) and feels like a guest production someone forcefully crammed into the tracklist.

The somewhat awkward way it’s been put together and the slight overlength it has prevents Random Access Memories from being the seminal masterpiece it wants to be, but it doesn't stop the album from being a genuinely great listen. Throwback albums like this are always potentially problematic because there is a clear barrier between successfully showing your love for a particular nostalgic sound you care for and simply imitating past glories in a superficial and ultimately needless way. Daft Punk’s passion for everything the era they want to bring back represents is evident everywhere. It’s never just a pastiche or going retro for retro’s sake: they’re utilising methods of the past to create something new true to their own vision. It has no chance in hell to answer to all the hype and buzz around it, it’s not going to impact the dance music scene that reveres the robots so and you might as well be playing it on shuffle, but it’s a rich and warm musical experience that suits both the dancefloor and concentrated headphone listening in equal amounts that forms an important part of the duo’s musical journey.


Daft Punk

Random Access Memories

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2013-05-21
UK Release Date: 2013-05-20
Amazon
iTunes

Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” was recorded over the span of five years and in three cities. It cost the duo and Sony, at a conservative estimate, over a million dollars to produce and promote. Along with the permanent Daft Punk members, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, the album features famous musicians not known for wearing bespoke helmets and referring to themselves as robots: Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, and the seventies schmalz merchant Paul Williams, among others. (Williams the Elder may not have been called in for his tautological lyrics or goopy braying but, rather, because he starred in the 1974 film “Phantom of the Paradise,” one of Brian De Palma’s schlockier works. The lurid “Phantom” has found a home with cultish types, and the French, careful cherry pickers of the American dumpster, love this dumbass movie.)

Before I wrote a column on the album, I heard “Random Access Memories” all the way through only once. On March 26th, in a large conference room at the Sony Building on Madison Avenue, a well-liked man known as Metal Mike lifted a box out of a Zero Halliburton suitcase, plugged it into a stereo that we couldn’t see, and played “Random Access Memories” for about ten journalists through speakers we could definitely see. The music was loud, and the sound was gloriously tactile. (Weirdly, like all Daft Punk albums, this one features no female voices, almost no female musicians, and an almost complete lack of any references to work by women, other than as anonymous partners.)

Weeks later, as The New Yorkers editors and checkers were closing the piece, the label provided an MP3 version of the album to the magazine; others versions had begun circulating online. By the time we had closed the column on Wednesday, May 15th, five whole days before the column was posted online and appeared in print, I found a 24/96 FLAC rip of the vinyl version of the album on the Web. (Don’t worry about the terms—it’s a format that sounds about as good as digital audio can.) I held a high-decibel audition at home and found that none of the detail was missing. The column made it clear that I was of several minds about “Random Access Memories,” but hearing it in my home confirmed there was no special sauce in Metal Mike’s tool kit. The album has been engineered and produced so that, wherever you play it, it sounds like money was spent on every bit of it. One can imagine several military specialists having worked on expanding its sonic range.

Would I have changed the tone of my review, though, if I had been able to hear the album ten or twenty times before writing (which is my preference)? Probably not. I might have pointed out a few things, though. You can play the single “Get Lucky” eight billion times without tiring of it. The world may hit that number, if we come together as one: “Get Lucky” had the biggest streaming day for a single track in the history of Spotify for the United States and U.K., and had the biggest first day in Spotify history. Since the service made “Get Lucky” available, on April 18th, it has been streamed more than forty million times around the world. People seem to like it. The song creates the feeling of being on a tugboat made of bubbles while Nile Rodgers serves you liquid Valium in flute glasses and Pharrell Williams gives vague but really helpful advice. Or so you think. So you play it again, to make sure, and start dancing while Pharrell explains that you’re going to be up all night, though you already knew that.

Given more time, I might have noted that Daft Punk’s custom-built modular synthesizer makes some cronut-halving bass sounds, and that the tentative and icy “Instant Crush,,” featuring Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, would be a great summer hit. Did I end up loving Paul Williams and his mini-opera? Do I understand why someone would want to hear a dull interview with the disco legend Giorgio Moroder more than once? Do I know why Daft Punk is so fond of B-list jazz fusion? “No” to all of these questions—yet, when I play the album from top to bottom, I am happy. It doesn’t matter what I think of the taste behind these choices; they love this schizophrenic mess, and worked ferociously hard to use that love to make a concrete piece of sound. “Random Access Memories” is a tangibly passionate effort. I am not bothered that it contains no revelations, wit, or wisdom. It’s terrifying to think that if Daft Punk had worked with professionals like Pharrell for the whole album, they might have made the “Thriller” they suggest they did (they didn’t) with a subtle design reference on their album cover.

Here’s where the Daft Punk story gets confusing. Do leaks hurt album sales? This Time magazine piece from three years ago points to bigger and smaller artists whose albums didn’t suffer commercially when leaked early, sometimes months before the official sales date. Assessing loss of sales is harder now; with streaming services like Spotify, “cannibalization” is impossible to track. There is a growing cohort of people who might have grabbed a download just to hear a track, simply out of excitement, but were only ever going to stream it—they were not potential buyers. Leaks have not hurt Daft Punk, it appears. “Random Access Memories” débuted in the United States, on May 21st, at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, the first time Daft Punk had occupied that position. It has since sold four hundred and thirty-two thousand copies in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan. So that week-plus of leaked versions, from fan-made edits of a one-minute YouTube clip to full iTunes album rips to the huge audiophile homemade 24/96 files I mentioned before? Possibly, as many have said for years, more promo than loss of sales.

True, people feel very strongly about Daft Punk; “Random Access Memories” was going to be a big album no matter what. Did reticence build up the sales a little? Make no difference? What if thirty journalists had gotten copies three weeks before the sales date? Would they have leaked it? (Though writers have leaked albums, intentionally or not, the consensus is that artists themselves or people within their camps most often leak them, perhaps for a reward.) There was a genuinely odd moment this year when the reclusive British artist Jai Paul “released” a new album of material. The tracks were numbered but not named. Fans noted immediately that the songs sounded like demos, which wouldn’t be that odd since his breakout song, “Jasmine,” became a hit while it was still a demo. For a day or so, you could buy this mysterious album on Bandcamp, the reputable indie music site, for as little as eight dollars. I did. The next day, Jai Paul explained that the album was not an album, that his laptop had been stolen and the tracks uploaded without his permission. (Bandcamp offered refunds.)

Over time, I’ve come to love the fuzzy R&B haze of the demos; in a slightly confusing statement, Jai Paul’s label, XL Recordings, clarified that they are indeed Jai Paul tracks. To recap: Jai Paul music entered the world for free (if you remembered to get your refund), just as the Toronto artist The Weeknd has been doing for years, and it simply made more people excited about Jai Paul. And when The Weeknd made a licensing deal with Universal and, last November, released “Trilogy,” a three-CD compilation of three albums that had been available free of charge for several years, the major label version still sold close to three hundred thousand copies in America alone.

Again and again and again, the “free music is the devil” theory doesn’t play out. The most plausible explanation—not to downplay the Internet’s role—is that the album widget, historically, was wildly overpriced, and the labels were lucky they got people to pay close to twenty bucks a pop for so long. (This is not a spitball theory; music executives love to admit this, off the record, and laugh loudly.) Being really good and building on organic audience—true of Daft Punk and The Weeknd and Danny Brown and Radiohead—seems to be most predictive of sales.

Even so, I can understand artists’ fears about seeing their albums leak. Several years ago, while playing one of the final LCD Soundsystem shows at Webster Hall, James Murphy got on his knees and begged the crowd not to get the recently leaked version of the band’s last album, “This Is Happening.” He said he wasn’t worried about losing money (“E.M.I. will never recoup anyway,” he quipped) but because “we want it come out the way it was supposed to come out.” This speaks to an older model of record promotion, where critics would receive CDs or cassettes in plain white paper sleeves without artwork. The Internet, once they plugged it in, was slow enough that sharing albums was beyond our ken, mostly. Having early releases was like having access to a secret screening room. We had months to listen to the music and figure out what was going on. As artists are almost, to a person, fond of telling you how long and hard they’ve worked on their albums, it seemed only right to respect that by listening carefully and repeatedly.

When Karlheinz Brandenburg shrunk down digital files into the MP3 format, and then, years later, the bandwidth became big and fast enough to quickly download much higher-quality versions of albums, labels began holding back. But online editors, aware of how robust blogs and online communities are, have routinely started running reviews of leaked records to remain relevant and not look like they slept through the news. When “Random Access Memories” leaked, Stereogum ran a feature of theirs called Premature Evaluation, and let the excellent critic Tom Breihan grapple with the knotty and robust weirdness of an album that he hadn’t heard many times (and almost certainly not in high-resolution audio). Why? Because that’s the job now. Leak? Official? Whatever—get me copy.

Last Tuesday, Spinposted an entertaining, seven-person roundtable about Boards of Canada’s “Tomorrow’s Harvest,” which is not commercially available until this Tuesday. Rob Harvilla deftly rewrote the words for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” into his comment: “Swell mixture of darkness and dawn, though I’ve only heard this thing once.” And the chorus: “We’re up all night to get sleepy, we’re up all night to get sleepy, we’re up all night to get sleepy, we’re up all night to get sleepy.” Any writer who’s gotten an e-mail with the subject “Posting soon?” knows that this dance toward dawn is how reviews get written now, more often that not. Record labels are not the bad guys; they are at the mercy of their artists, who know the audience landscape now and are less worried than ever about reviews. (I routinely ask publicists for advance copies, only to be told, “just wait for leak.” They have no more power than you or I in these cases.) Frank Ocean apparently carried the master of “Channel Orange” in a suitcase, and delivered it himself to iTunes when he decided, without his label’s blessing, to release the album a week early. That worked out pretty well.

A healthy and plausible solution might be two-tiered: let writers have a crack at the album when it leaks, as we saw above with Spin and Pitchfork. Then, publications willing to do so could run long and more considered reviews a few weeks later. The album would have sunk in, and these second pieces could add reporting on the general reaction to the album, sales figures, and details of embarrassing Twitter fights. But this idea works only if you posit that people like reading writing about recordings. We are pretty sure people like recordings. But the Internet grants instant access to so much music, and to so many listeners; my guess is the people who like reading essays about music are people who like reading essays. The fans already have the album; a critic like me is, as they used to say, a fish on a bike. And so, tomorrow, critics will start begging to hear Kanye West’s new album, “Yeezus.” We’ll be running a review. If you get a copy, let me know.

Photograph by Dan Winters.

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