As an often-opinionated electronic music listener, I have been asked by several people what my thoughts were on the album that just about everyone is talking about (more on this phenomenon later) – Daft Punk’s apparent Magnum Opus, Random Access Memories. And when I try to tell them, I find myself with more things to say about it than I can organize in my head, and it’s always different. There’s just a lot to say about it. So in a way, writing this is to find out my own opinion.
It’s a good album. There is so much brain power, production, thought and rethought behind this album, there is really no chance it could have been a bad album. So trying to answer the question of “Is it good? or is it bad?” is pointless. Beyond that, it’s a compelling landmark for both Daft Punk and popular music in general.
What is perhaps most striking about this album has nothing to do with the way it sounds. It is the product in a marketing strategy that people will be studying for years. In fact, the marketing of the album is so strong, it has become critical component of what the album means to the listener. At this point, it’s sound is inseparable from the expectations it held. It’s a strange primer, for sure. They performed a magic trick, they convinced the people that had heard One More Time and Harder Better Faster Stronger (with or without Kanye) and made them truly believe they have loved Daft Punk from the beginning. This happens often and is pretty formulaic for the business (“hey remember SINGLE? check out NEW ALBUM”) But this one is on a different level. I have never seen it work so well. Collectively, the whole world decided that Daft Punk was gonna be as big of a deal as just about anyone else. Was it always like this? Have I been so blind?
This wasn’t the only magic trick they performed though. They managed to change their sound, and for that matter, their entire artistic angle completely and they did it right under everyone’s noses. Because while it still has all of the most immediate identifiers of Daft Punk, all the vocoders and easy four-on-the-flour thumps, this is way different than anything else they have ever put out, in sound and approach.
If the start of the concert in their Alive 2007 release is any indication (a few minutes of “ROBOT…HUMAN….ROBOT…”) Daft Punk has always taken the Robot Vs. Human theme very seriously. And had based their entire platform for dance music delivery on “We are robots, here is our robot music. Dance humans”. Previously, Daft Punk was the go to music if you wanted to scare your poor older relatives into thinking these damn kids have aligned with the e-mail machines and are gonna run this poor old world right into the digital end-game. The song Human After All, from the album of the same name is tongue-in-cheek (“Whatever, robot man, you’re sure a human, uh-huh”) Not a single person went “Why?” when they learned they would be writing the soundtrack for the Tron reboot. It was obvious. Daft Punk are robots. It’s what they do.
So it’s strange now that the defining feature of this album is them eschewing the robot aesthetic, hiring studio musicians to play for years to find the perfect sound, and resubmitting disco into the pop music ecosystem by force. Bit crushed guitars no longer seek to knock crowds over with their power, they have been replaced by the bounce and pop of clean funk. They claimed in interviews that the human element is an essential ingredient in music. Which is a perfectly fine statement to make, but just about the last thing I would expect to hear from Daft Punk. What’s even more twisted about this album is that it’s named after a computer component, also fine for Daft Punk, but shouldn’t this one be ‘Human After All’? Daft Punk is clearly just fucking with us.
It seems that Daft Punk has switched their platform to perhaps an even grander mission. They have gone from “Hey, check it out, we’re robots” to “We are saviors of pop music.” They have repurposed their anonymous robot personas to being vehicles from which to make a stab at perfection (Which, I guess if you think about it, is kind of a robotic idea). It is just strange to me that to do this, they seem to have chosen disco and the early electronic experimentations of the 70’s as their jumping-off point. Do they think that’s the closest we have gotten to ultimate sonic pleasure?
Now, if you tried to scare grandma with RAM-era Daft Punk you might get a hint of recognition. Crazy, right?
Not to mention, I think it was the anonymity that brought the hype to fever-pitch levels. That trick has worked before. (Dammit, Burial, you’ll always be my favorite)
There are times in this album where cheesiness seems to be the point. Like the borderline show-tune-closer Touch. This is clearly a manufactured effect. Like them saying “We know you’ll listen to this, so we can do what we want.” At first glance, it may look like irony (especially in an age where irony sells so well), but I think it’s a bit more genuine than reference. By making music they know people are predisposed to want to dance to (“cause thats what you DO to DAFT PUNK, we’re you born under a rock?!”) they have transcended the boundaries of a need to be edgy or cool and can fill the same holes as a band like Abba. Yep, I said it. Daft Punk has made themselves the Abba of our age. Deal with it.
My thoughts on the album are still a work in progress. Probably because of the all the weight that has been installed in it, and the deeply confusing direction it has taken, the end opinion I have of the album will be different from what I have just written in a few months. I will just have to see how this one settles on me.
I guess we should consider the alternative. Say they didn’t change at all. What would we have? A clone of Human After All? A half-baked ‘revisiting’ of Discovery? I would say “Bigger bands have done it”, but now I’m not so sure there are bigger bands. I would definitely rather they come out of nowhere with a left turn than retread old stomping grounds. Besides, they already have plenty of imitators to beat their dead horses for them.
Regardless, everyone else seems at least satisfied, so maybe I should just go with “It’s good.” and nod my head to the beat.