Album Review: Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories”

Random Access Memories

I first came across Daft Punk in high school, where a classmate used them as incidental music to their end-of-semester project. In thrall to the Classic Rock back catalog at the time, I had little truck with French duo’s dance house electronics. But as I’ve written elsewhere, 2013 was the year I discovered I actually loved electronic music. That my interest in the genre reared its head just as Daft Punk released their long-awaited Random Access Memories (2013) is no coincidence.

“Let the music of your life give life back to music.” With these words, Daft Punk throw down the gauntlet not only to their hordes of followers and imitators, but to all who listen to and create music in an age of Robin Thicke and Katy Perry. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter are playing for big stakes here. This isn’t just about getting lucky at the clubs; this is about the heart and soul of modern music. And they’re prepared to unleash their full talents—and to marshal a host of big-name collaborators including Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Pharrell Williams, and Panda Bear—to win.

RAM is DP’s gone-for-broke masterwork, a towering edifice building on a foundation of disco-inflected French house with everything from jazz fusion and simmering R&B to indie rock and moody 80s pop to neo-Wagnerian bombast and sci-fi prog rock. Through it all, Homem-Christo and Bangalter exercise complete creative control over the proceedings, vocoding Julian Casablancas’s guest vocals on “Instant Crush” and keeping a tight dancefloor groove pulsing beneath the spoken-word musings and guitar hero theatrics of “Georgio by Moroder.” That the album clocks in at 74 minutes is no criticism; it exploits every minute for all it’s worth.

What makes this sprawling behemoth click is not its breadth of musical vocabulary, however, but its depth of feeling. Questioning one’s place in the cosmos in light of rapid technological change is hardly a new phenomenon; it’s been one of the central concerns of world literature since the Industrial Revolution. Daft Punk themselves have spent much of their career interrogating the subject with equal parts sci-fi camp and art-film panache. “There’s a world within me that I cannot explain,” the vocoded narrator of “Within” pleads. “Please tell me who I am.” We should not be this moved by what sounds to be the voice of an android; and yet we cannot help but shudder with recognition, even as we shudder when the dying HAL croons “Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do” in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Within”‘s mysterious inner world is the geography of Daft Punk’s explorations. It’s no accident that Homem-Christo and Bangalter are seldom seen without their robot helmets; even as it moves us to tears, even as it incorporates rich analog instrumentation, RAM is still grounded in programmed synthesizers and sequenced beats. This is the modern tension between technology and humanity made manifest. At its root is the very human quest for identity: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Even seemingly superficial tracks like the monumental “Get Lucky” tackle these bigger themes:

We’ve come too far
To give up who we are
So let’s raise the bar
And our glass to the stars

As a single, it’s a danceable, unspeakably catchy paean to good times. In the context of RAM as a conceptual whole, it’s an existential celebration of living in and for the moment. That the band manages to craft a hit simultaneously this deep and this joyously infectious is a testament to their mastery of their art.

By the band’s own admission, though, the album’s keystone, the center around which RAM’s progressive-electronic-disco-funk maelstrom swirls, is “Touch,” an eight-minute epic that carries the listener on a journey into their own heart and mind. The beginning of the voyage finds singer-songwriter Paul Williams lamenting the inadequacy of physical contact to fill our existential voids: “Sweet touch, you’ve almost convinced me I’m real.” But then Williams’ angst gives way to an ecstatic New Orleans brass band, which then explodes into the chant-like refrain “If love is the answer, you’re home – hold on.” Whether you “Lose Yourself to Dance” or play “The Game of Love,” this is the answer to all those questions of identity. This is the mystical “song before sound” into whose embrace DP beckon us on “Beyond.” It’s a moment of sheer transcendence, a supernova that concentrates and illuminates everything Daft Punk have achieved with their career and with RAM in particular.

Of course, “love is all you need” is hardly a new insight. But the fact that it has been said before tells us nothing about whether it’s true or not. As C.S. Lewis once wrote:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

“Touch” concludes with a startling return to Williams’ lonely vocals: “I need something more – I need something more.” Our momentary glimpse of the Great Answer is followed by doubt, further questions and further questing. But if Love truly is the answer, we’re already home. We just have to hold on to that simple, perennial truth and allow it to guide us. For all their seemingly supernatural talents, Daft Punk are human after all. And with Random Access Memories, they have told us something deeply true about the human experience, and done it in terms that even the Billboard Hot 100 can understand.  It’s not just the best album of 2013; it’s one of the best damn albums I have ever heard.


Buy it here. Spotify it here.

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6 Responses to Album Review: Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories”

  1. Pingback: Tom’s Top 10 of 2013 | Revolutions Per Minute

  2. Pingback: Track Spotlight: Pentatonix, “Daft Punk” | Revolutions Per Minute

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