(Extended Cut posts are articles where I’ll exceed my usual 200-word limit to allow for more detailed discussion)
Daft Punk’s hotly anticipated new album, Random Access Memories, doesn’t sound much like their previous albums, but this is hardly a surprise – none of Daft Punk’s albums sound that much alike. The vibe here is very ‘70s influenced: disco vibes, slinky guitars; a complete package of funky retro-futurism. It’s also much softer than their previous work. That’s clear from opening number “Give Life to Music,” a soft-funk number whose title might as well be a mission statement for this album, which is far more naturalistic and gentle than anything the duo’s done before. There’s no pounding bass here, no astronomic choruses, though there’s plenty of sky-gazing.
Everyone’s heard first single “Get Lucky” by now, and it’s one of the best tracks from Random Access Memories. I wasn’t a fan initially, but its head-bopping rhythms and good use of Pharrell Williams’ vocals won me over. It’s pleasant, like a cool glass of lemonade. “Fragments of Time” tries for a similar, casual pop vibe but is much less successful; the first half of the song tries to keep things interesting with made-for-headphones stereo tricks, and the last half erupts into extended guitar noodling, but neither can disguise the bland pop song underneath.
The album is more interesting when it tries to develop and sustain atmosphere. Many of the earlier tracks of the album sound perfectly suited to soundtrack a movie, whether it’s the robot love song “The Game of Love,” a push-pull between rigid artificiality and vocoder-treated emotion that wouldn’t be out of place scoring a porno, or “Instant Crush,” which could easily feature prominently on the soundtrack of a John Hughes film with its polished nostalgic sheen. The latter would probably have been better as an instrumental track, with the heavily-synthesised vocals a distraction.
Lyrics are a significant part of this record, perhaps more so than the poppy Discovery. There’s even a children’s choir appearing in the back half of “Touch” (the closest Daft Punk’s gotten to producing a “ballad,” and that’s not a compliment). The emotion is unabashedly raw, with soppy lyrics like “There’s no such thing as competition … remember love’s our only mission.” Personally, I prefer their earlier, more detached work, but I appreciate the group’s consistency in making each album its own document.
Much of Daft Punk’s deep album cuts feel like raw material for someone else; bits and pieces to gather and reimagine. “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Doin’ It Right” are both good songs, funky and danceable, but each feel a little too long, a little too repetitive: one good remix away from excellence. My favourite track from the album could also be described as long and repetitive, I suppose, but while “Giorgio by Moroder” stretches to nine minutes I couldn’t imagine a shorter remix capturing the magic. As you might have guessed from the title, it serves as a mini-biography of sorts for disco icon Giovanni “Giorgio” Moroder, but it’s more reminiscent of krautrock than disco. Naturally, it’s infused with the funkiness that defines Random Access Memories, but it’s hypnotically effective, and one of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
Towards the end of the album, “Motherboard” is an excellent, minimalist track, strapping the album’s ubiquitous natural instrumentation over a glitchy, processed undercurrent. The final track, “Contact,” is another highlight, serving as affirmation rather than farewell; an accelerating, exciting, juddering end to the album – an appropriate, space-age homage to an era that brought us disco covers of the Star Wars theme.
Random Access Memories is far from the favourite album I’ve heard this year; my tastes aren’t really suited to its funky, disco sensibilities. It might not satisfy people looking for a big album, to fill the dancefloor or shake one’s living room. But it’s undeniably a good, even great album, ambitious and refreshing, using the optimism of an earlier era to gaze into the future.