Saturday, May 25, 2013

Album Review: Daft Punk - "Random Access Memories"

Let me just get this out of the way right now, before we even talk about music. "Random Access Memories" is quite possibly my favorite album title of all time. It's clever, it fits with the theme of the band and the album itself, and it's a computer joke. As soon as I saw the ad that ran before my theater's showing of "Iron Man 3" (though most people apparently saw it on SNL) I knew I had to buy this album for the title alone.

I was also struck by how different it was from Daft Punk's usual sound. I grew up with Daft Punk, first exposed to their music in the same way a lot of nerds my age probably were, through the music video for "One More Time" that aired on Toonami a lot.

Aside from just being really catchy and cool, the ending of the video was incredibly maddening. I was a high schooler at the time and my Google Fu was still too weak to find out that this video was the beginning of the larger project, "Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem". Still, Daft Punk were more or less my first exposure into electronic music, and despite my love of technology, I'm generally not all that fond of electronic music outside of Daft Punk.

And to be perfectly honest, while I liked a number of Daft Punk songs, I'd never really say I was a "fan". When I was younger, I tended to listen to mixes of popular singles, so I tended to pick a very narrow sampling of Daft Punk's music. "One More Time", "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger", and "Technologic" were pretty much their only songs that I heard more than once.

Once I got into college, I started listening more to entire albums rather than just playlists. I'm not sure what changed about my tastes, but if I had to guess, it probably had something to do with my sudden appreciation for "Coheed and Cambria". As I said in my review of "Afterman: Ascension" (and I'll review "Descension" eventually, I promise), the best way to listen to CoCa is to take in each album as a whole thing. That's the only way to absorb the story, the emotion, the themes, and things like that, and most of the songs don't really stand particularly well on their own. And as I started moving back to artists other than CoCa, I found that I suddenly liked listening to full albums of other artists for some of the same reasons. Not all albums hold together quite as well as others, but most good albums have a central theme or style that I like to marinate in. Plus, some songs are hidden gems that never get any radio play because they show up towards the end of an album and maybe require a number of listens before they work their way into your soul.

So it was during this time that I finally found "Interstella 5555" and got to see Daft Punk try to tie a narrative through the entire album of "Discovery". And while the narrative itself was a little... dull in parts, the album itself was really solid and cohesive. It also made me realize just how far down electronic music had fallen since Daft Punk left the scene.

"Human After All" doesn't hold together quite as well, but I give it a lot of slack because I really, really love "Technologic".

I just love how completely in-your-face this song is from beginning to end, how it's repetitive without being maddening, and how the video is a literal depiction of the most uncanny-valley-looking robot ever designed becoming self-aware of how horrifying and soulless it has become.

This video is actually kind of how I imagine Daft Punk felt about electronic music in the 2000's. As electronic as some of their music got, it always had a really solid foundation built on disco and pop. Mostly disco. But as years went on and auto-tune became trendy, electronic influence began to be used as a crutch by people who didn't understand it. Instead of being its own thing, it started to homogenize pop music into this perfect-pitch synth slurry of stupid. And by the end of the decade, things only got worse.

When we needed them most, Daft Punk were nowhere to be found. Instead, they were working on the original soundtrack for "Tron: Legacy", and I am still pissed that they didn't even get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score that year. A lot of people went to see that movie almost entirely for the soundtrack. And it was an amazing soundtrack.

But after 8 years, Daft Punk finally put out another album. And here we have "Random Access Memories".

If I were to put into words why Daft Punk's use of electronic sound works while's doesn't... it would have to be like this:

Daft Punk are robots trying to be human. is (purportedly) a human trying desperately to sound like a robot.

Daft Punk are trying to find the music in what most would probably consider to be "noise". just took music and turned it into actual noise.

So when they decided to come back, it's not surprising that they decided to tone down the electronic. It's still there, but most of the songs involve a lot more music from normal singers and standard electric instruments. This was to be their "back to roots" album.

This isn't unusual. After they've been around for a while, bands like to create albums to explore their roots. However "Random Access Memories" is different.

See, Daft Punk never forgot their roots. They've always loved disco and they've always paid homage to it, even in their most electronic music. No, we are the ones who needed the reminder. We are the ones who forgot that electronic music was not supposed to be this over-produced shit.

In a world where "artists" use technology to make themselves sound more talented than they are, Daft Punk decided to take them on with an album that used as little technology as possible to prove that good electronic music (and good music in general) is built on a solid foundation of musical understanding and ability.

The goal of "Random Access Memories" is very plainly stated with the very first song on the album: "Give Life Back to Music".

As for the album itself... it's good.

I'm not going to lie, much like Daft Punk themselves, I think I like the concept better than the music itself. That's not to say it's bad, far from it. I actually really enjoy this album, probably more than any of their other albums. But I can't say I love it. I love what it stands for, I love the band that produced it, and I love the title and the aesthetic. And I love a number of the songs.

"Giorgio by Moroder" almost feels like a documentary in music form and it's probably my favorite track on the album. "Touch" is trippy and almost feels like it belongs in a stage musical, and I mean that in the best possible way. "Get Lucky" is a great single and probably the best disco track in decades.

But I found that almost all of the songs I really loved on this album were the collaborations. The few songs that don't feature other artists simply aren't as good as some of Daft Punk's earlier work. "Motherboard" in particular feels like an empty void. It's not bad, just forgettable.

Also, when they do dip back into electronic, it almost feels too familiar. Like, I love the vocoder interlude of "Get Lucky", but it feels very musically derivative of some of the parts of "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger". Maybe that's part of the point? To show the underlying disco roots of some of their songs? I dunno.

And I'm not saying that Daft Punk have run out of talent. Not even close. I think they just work best when they have a mission. With "Tron: Legacy", they had a narrative to build around. With their collaborative tracks, they had other artists to merge styles with.

To speak in more technological terms, Daft Punk are machines (metaphorically-speaking) and machines work best when implemented by people. If left on their own, they tend to produce the same patterns and are fairly easy to dissect and predict. But while collaborating, they show a very powerful understanding of what their music is capable of and use it to enhance the quality of whatever they're collaborating with without diluting it.

It really does raise this question of the fate of electronic music. What merit does the human element truly have? As much as Daft Punk clearly love technology, they clearly don't want it to replace what they consider to be the soul of music. But are they right?

I certainly think that a lot of artists are abusing technology without fully understanding it, but I do think that there's nothing wrong with throwing out the rulebook and making an entire song through bits and boards. For some reason it all reminds me of this little speech from Battlestar Galactica:

Regardless of the place technology has in the music to come, this album still reminds us of the place music of the past had in influencing it. For that reason alone, I would highly recommend this album, even if it's not something I necessarily love completely from beginning to end. But even saying that, this album has more than enough great music to make it worth the purchase.