Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s first proper album (and not Disney movie soundtrack) in eight years, might be the biggest album of the year. It’s padded with absurd collaborations, not to mention humongous musical moments, and it clocks in at over an hour; four of the album’s thirteen tracks are over six minutes long. This is an album that sounds like it broke the bank, but Daft Punk members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are also sincere enough in their devotion to retrofitting dance music that it feels like the intimate work of dedicated craftsmen. Random Access Memories is not Daft Punk’s strongest songwriting effort (that honor will probably always belong to Discovery), nor does it represent a progressive leap forward from what the duo were doing over a decade ago – in many instances it even seems to be working backwards. But Random Access Memories is focused, structured, and surprisingly consistent for such a long album; rather than kick the pot over and start from scratch, Daft Punk have opted to work new flavor into a stock that’s been simmering for decades.
Some of the collaborations on Random Access Memories would not have been any more obvious ten or twenty years ago than they are today: a synthpop producer who is older than Paul McCartney, the funk guitarist behind CHIC, the composer who wrote “Fill Your Heart” for David Bowie, and the creatively pigeonholed frontman of The Strokes. Only Animal Collective’s Noah Lenox and The Neptunes’ Pharrell seem anywhere near contemporaneous of Daft Punk, and even that’s quite the stretch. And yet the Random Access‘ diverse contributors (especially the older ones) absolutely define its incredibly focused sound: if not through their direct involvement with the project then certainly through Daft Punk’s reverence of their work. With people like Giorgio Moroder and Paul Williams, Daft Punk not only put humanoid faces and voices to their music but also a distinctly 20th century smear to their introverted futurism – you’re not meant to recognize these names, necessarily, but you should recognize the sound as something that once defined a musical era.
A perfect example of this is Giorgio Moroder’s monologue at the beginning of “Giorgio by Moroder” – an origin story about a young German disco singer – which lends some chronology to the album’s sound: a fusion between European funk and the kind of synthesizer music made popular by groups like Yellow Magic Orchestra and videogame soundtracks. Though some songs, like Moroder’s composition and “Motherboard,” exist firmly in the tradition of Vangelis’ electronic scores, they sound perfectly compatible with funkier fare like “Give Life Back to Music” and early single “Get Lucky.” Random Access balances these two inclinations perfectly – never letting them get overly combative, but always making sure that each leans hard into the other; “Give Life Back to Music” is resplendent with Daft Punk’s digital slurps, and “Giorgio by Moroder” was clearly birthed from the same roomy discothèques as Random Acess‘ Euro-funk pieces.
That’s not to say that Random Access is a one (or two) trick pony, or that the vast album has no surprises in store for more jaded listeners. “Touch” is a bold take on exactly the kind of lovable schlock you could reasonably expect from Paul Williams, and even though its cocaine-age balladry is in perfect simpatico with a song like “Doin’ it Right,” there is still something very strange and exciting about “Touch” and its status as a piece of 21st century music. “Doin’ it Right,” on the other hand, is a very modern exercise in self-reference for Daft Punk and collaborator Noah Lenox. At 34, Lenox is the youngest artist working on Random Access Memories and maybe the only one for whom Daft Punk served as musical rite of passage, as well as a defining influence (Lenox has been an outspoken Daft Punk fanatic). On “Doin’ it Right” Lenox is giving us his take on Daft Punk (which they seem happy to oblige), and its a performance informed by over a decade of idolization, as well as one of the album’s strongest tracks. Otherwise, this is an album of contributors who are content to lend their particular sonic idiosyncrasies to Daft Punk’s send ups of said contributors’ work.
What’s so cool about Random Access Memories is its nonchalant reverence of music you would associate with 8-track players, videogames, and soft techno. The orchestral intro to “Beyond” could have come straight from Final Fantasy Tactics but it slides into the song’s Phoenix-like funk pop with almost offputting ease. Random Access Memories is funny and thrilling; it may not be the songwriting achievement of an album like Discovery – nothing on here will ever be as quintessential as “One More Time” or “Digital Love” – but Random Access Memories is still a force to be reckoned with. If this is to be the reclusive duo’s swan song then so be it – I don’t suspect it can be easily topped.
Though I also assume we’ll be hearing more from Daft Punk.