In 1993, when the French duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo released their first record, as members of the rock band Darlin’, an English journalist described the music as “a daft punky thrash.” Shortened, this became the name of their next project, a not very punk dance act. Daft Punk’s début single, “The New Wave,” from 1994, was a fast, thumping techno track built from drum machines and synthesizers. Twenty years later, Daft Punk hasn’t so much changed dance music as dominated it. The group laid the groundwork for the growing contemporary dance genre by making music that was slightly rougher and almost comically synthetic—the latter symbolized by their habit of wearing robot helmets in their public appearances. “Discovery,” from 2001, is perhaps the most influential dance record in recent memory. The album’s centerpiece is the propulsive “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which samples Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby.” After singing each word of the title, one at a time, the group moves into an evenly spaced chant that is sort of like Maoist yoga: “Work it harder, make it better. Do it faster, makes us stronger, more than ever, hour after, our work is never over.” It is workout music that is already working out. In 2007, Kanye West’s single “Stronger” used a sample from the song, and helped nudge hip-hop toward the sounds of the club.
Daft Punk’s fourth studio album, “Random Access Memories,” is an attempt to make the kind of disco record that they sampled so heavily for “Discovery.” As such, it serves as a tribute to those who came before them and as a direct rebuke to much of what they’ve spawned. Only intermittently electronic in nature, and depending largely on live musicians, it is extremely ambitious, and as variable in quality as any popular album you will hear this year. Noodly jazz fusion instrumentals? Absolutely. Soggy poetry and kid choirs? Yes, please. Clichés that a B-list teen-pop writer would discard? Bring it on. The duo has become so good at making records that I replay parts of “Random Access Memories” repeatedly while simultaneously thinking it is some of the worst music I’ve ever heard. Daft Punk engages the sound and the surface of music so lovingly that all seventy-five loony minutes of “Random Access Memories” feel fantastic, even when you are hearing music you might never seek out. This record raises a radical question: Does good music need to be good?
Recorded over five years, at studios in Paris, London, and New York, and, including promotion, costing several million dollars, the album features musicians who played on albums by Sting, Chic, and Michael Jackson. Of note are the drummers Omar Hakim and John (JR) Robinson, the bassist Nathan East, and Nile Rodgers (white suit in the above picture), the tidiest rhythm guitarist ever. But the guest musicians are not all from one era: Pharrell Williams (brown hat and white pants), of the Neptunes, sings on and co-wrote two singles; Panda Bear, of Animal Collective, appears as a vocalist; and the seventies oddball Paul Williams sings a long song about the power of touch. This jumble extends to other facets of the album, which ends with a six-minute ode to a spaceship taking off. In several advertisements, the title “Random Access Memories” is rendered in the same font and coloring as the “Thriller” logo. So this record doesn’t just think big—it comes into the world as a thing to crush other things.
he album has been launched as well as any in memory. On April 12th, at Coachella, and the next night, on “Saturday Night Live,” Pharrell Williams, Rodgers, and the Daft Punk “robots” appeared in a one-minute clip, in which they played the first single, “Get Lucky,” as a band. The song lopes along in a soft disco thump, seductive but not ecstatic. Rodgers plays immaculate, clean upstrokes on electric guitar, voicing chords that feel airy but never seek attention. It is as close to magic as pop comes. The bass line moves forward and throws in the kind of circular fillip that would take ages to sample but that a practiced session player can do without thinking. Williams is not a fantastic singer but he’s wonderfully unpretentious, a perfect parallel to Rodgers.
His verses sound like talking, and the words are some of the album’s least inane: “Like the legend of the phoenix, all ends with beginnings. What keeps the planets spinning, the force from the beginning.” It would probably change the record only slightly if the lyrics were randomly rearranged and placed in other songs. Love, elevation, fun, the search for identity—it’s all of a piece, snugly fitted and bespoke. Williams moves into a silky, high harmony section for the bridge, perhaps the best lyric of the album: “We’ve come too far to give up who we are, so let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars.” The chorus is simply variations on reasons to stay up all night: to get some, to get lucky, for good fun. “Get Lucky” has already set a record on Spotify as the most frequently streamed new song.
The track feels a bit like “Voyager,” from “Discovery,” which built a disco band, in part, from samples and loops. The ecstatic joy of that album seems cramped now, compared with “Random Access Memories,” which sounds as expensive as it was. But “Discovery” is the better album, likely because, without the challenge of directing live musicians, the group could focus on building tight, hypnotic motifs and juxtapositions that all fit together, fusing expressions of openness and energy. By contrast, “Random Access Memories” doesn’t stick to any single mood, and those who have fallen in love with “Get Lucky” are going to face some tough choices. The disco perfection of that song is echoed in the opening track, “Give Music Back to Life,” a bombastic number that eventually lets Rodgers bring back his pellucid tone. It is not as exciting to hear one of the robots sing through a vocoder as it is to hear Williams, but it works, and we expect Daft Punk to sound like this now: anonymous, friendly, and synthetically themselves. “Lose Yourself to Dance,” another Williams track, is like a slightly relaxed “Get Lucky,” which suggests that this album could be your summer.
Not quite. Later, the robots sing a sad, soft rock number called “Game of Love.” One of the robots has been done wrong, and lightly moans, “This is a game of love, and it was you. And it was you, the one that would be breaking my heart when you decided to walk away.” If that five minutes gives you pause, consider the next nine. “Giorgio by Moroder” begins with the legendary Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder speaking, as if being interviewed, about his youthful desire to create music. Even if you love Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” or Blondie’s “Call Me,” or any of his other production triumphs, you may wonder why this is an entire track. As Moroder describes hooking up a click track to a synthesizer, Daft Punk cleverly—though not enjoyably—re-creates that sound. The track, which sounds like a slower cousin of Moroder’s “The Chase,” the theme from “Midnight Express,” continues for a while, and then breaks for a long, melancholy string passage. The synthesizer and the band reënter for a vigorous session that gives Omar Hakim plenty of room to play his many cymbals. Fans of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” or “Get Lucky” may be confused at this point. (The sad robot shows up again, on “Within,” and says, “Please tell me who I am.” On this album, the humans are happier than the robots.)
There are many more oddities than hits on “Random Access Memories,” and it was initially hard to imagine returning to this album. And yet, all the way down to the crumpling, machine chaos of the spaceship liftoff, on the final track, Daft Punk is brazen and lush, the champions of all they hear. They seem to know things that we don’t, and so we can’t be disappointed. They wanted to reject the present moment, and they did. (Credits – CBS, Daft Punk, the New York Times and Stevie Wonder).
The Master of Disaster