Yesterday, I attended a playback of the new Daft Punk album in Dublin. Those in attendance were allowed to listen to it once and once only before it was taken away. First impressions?
Is this album any good? Sadly, no. Those of you hoping for a defining pop album Of Our Times, forget about it. Those of you who think ‘Get Lucky’ is one of the singles of the year (like me) and were hoping for an album chock full of tracks that could unite any crowd? That’s not what Random Access Memories is. In fact, ‘Get Lucky’ is the only single in the traditional sense of the word. Those of you, buoyed by the presence of Nile Rodgers on three tracks who were hoping for a modern disco classic? Nope, not even Rodgers’ midas touch could making that happen. Those of you who were hoping for something similar to Homework or Discovery, keep dreaming and some day it might happen.
“Was there no executive producer present to tell them to “rein it fucking in lads”?
So what are we left with? Random Access Memories is a prog-funk record. I reiterate: it’s not a pop album. It’s not a dance album. It’s not a funk album. It’s a PROG-FUNK album. It mines the music of the uncool past. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have made a hammy, ridiculous, overlong ’70s-inspired album. There’s a reason we left those sounds behind. Random Access Memories is cheesy as fuck, it’s boring in parts, it’s amazing in others. It yearns to touch your heart but it just ends up tickling your ears with a kitsch feather. Was there no executive producer present to tell them to “rein it fucking in lads”? What the hell happened? Everything on it SOUNDS amazing but it’s hard to imagine who this will appeal to. Ironic lovers of schlock pop? It’s the kind of record you have to hear at least once because you may not believe your ears. In the hours that passed since yesterday, I feel like I experienced some weird fever dream where my brain imagined how wide of the mark the album could get.
Much of the album is mid-tempo which is a big problem for a Daft Punk record. The album features no samples so it’s all live instruments played in a studio. The default setting throughout is prog-funk-lite: the funk provided by Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr’s guitar licks and the prog is provided by almost omnipresent gentle keys. A lot of the songs feature Daft Punk’s trademark vocodered vocals.
The album’s opening track starts more like a stadium rock band with the awkward refrain of “let the music of your life give life back to music” and all of the above characteristics are present. It’s quite a traditional song that ends with a good time funk jam.
All too often, the album tracks stick to that prog-funk template with little variation. ‘The Game Of Love’ injects ’70s melancholy R&B sounds into its meandering length. ‘Within’ adds the elegant piano by Chilly Gonzales and ends up sounding like a mangled robot fronting a decent wedding band. ‘Beyond’ begins like the sprawling orchestral intro to an MGM film but it gives way to a prog-funk groove. I don’t remember much about “Motherboard” from the one listen other than it is a prog-funk instrumental and I scrawled “WTF?” in big black pen on the page during it.
“All too often, the album tracks stick to that prog-funk template with little variation.”
When that template is broken, in fairness to Daft Punk, they really try to push the boat out. The problem is, it just feels ridiculous rather than audacious. The album’s most successfully audacious track ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ begins with the famous electronic music producer in a monologue for a few minutes underpinned by live band funk before a breakdown happens when he says “my name is Gianni Giorgio, but everyone calls my Giorgio”. Heralded by a click track, these gorgeous Moroder synths arrive in all their retro-edged glory. But then, this horrible jazz piano almost ruins the retro futuristic vibe by dragging it into a shitty hotel bar and having its loungey way with it. Then the orchestral strings begin and it all comes together in one big crashing drum hi-octane ride. At nine minutes, it’s about two minutes too long. How can one song be so ridiculous and amazing all at once? The song needs a DJ edit, that’s for sure.
The album’s other long-running track ‘Touch’ is just ridiculous. Paul Williams has written songs for The Muppets and David Bowie but it’s the former that is more readily a reference with Williams’ dramatic delivery coming across as somewhat laughable (indeed, quite a few people laughed out loud during this song). The song itself is a cosmic space soundtrack interlude that runs and runs with soulful horns and jazzy sounds that conjures up images of Malibu and lounging on the Sunset Strip (or what I associate that to be like). And just when you think it’s over, Williams chimes in AGAIN about “wanting more” and needing “to touch”. Like the end credits of Star Wars, ‘Touch’ just keeps going long after people have stopped paying attention.
Elsewhere on the guest front, Julian Casablancas sings over a hi-tech 8-bit version of a Strokes song with bass and synth that soon becomes ploddingly dull on ‘Instant Crush’. Pharrell’s falsetto doesn’t do much on the funk-lite ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ which sounds like a song the band fell upon while improvising and didn’t really do anything more with. It’s repetitive but not in a good “dance music” way. By contrast, ‘Get Lucky’ is like a transmission from the world of pop. Tight, succint and universal, everything that the rest of the album is not. There’s a reason it’s the only song heard in the Collaborators video series.
“‘Get Lucky’ is like a transmission from the world of pop. Tight, succint and universal, everything that the rest of the album is not.”
Dance music enthusiasts hoping for a repeat or similar from the Todd Edwards-fronted ‘Fragments Of Time’ to ‘Face To Face’, I’ve got bad news for you. The song is also West Coast prog-funk but at least it’s direct this time rather than rambling in the way that it actually could be played on the radio or be released as a single, not something that can be said for most of these tracks.
The album’s most obvious highlight (other than ‘Get Lucky’) on one listen is ‘Doin’ It Right’. Panda Bear’s appearance highlights what’s wrong with the rest of the album. He’s a vitalic presence among these legends and collaborators; sounding full and alive. He comes correct with a transcendent vocal performance which is the first time vocally, that the album feels like it features human emotion, something that thematically appears in the lyrics throughout. Singing in a beautiful and uncharacteristically clear tone, Panda Bear sings over a robotic hook and the combination is really quite beautiful. And it’s something that is different for Daft Punk too. It’s the only time I really felt connected to the album rather than wondering what the hell was going on.
” Have these perfectionist producers actually polished a turd?”
The album finishes with ‘Contact’ which features the only sample on the album (from the Apollo 17 mission) an aural journey out of the stratosphere that culminates in spiralling synths and an almost Stadium drum and bass rhythm in some kitsch interplanetary liftoff.
Is Random Access Memories what happens when you leave revered technically meticulous dance music producers the key to a vintage studio from another era? Is this what happens when you let those same producers dictate musical legends that they respect too much? Meandering music and a shocking lack of self-editing? A mining of music past that has had its time. They played their instruments throughout. How RADICAL.
Obviously, I have only had one listen and all of the above are first impressions of a very silly-sounding album. It does not sound like a great album on the basis of a single listen. I’d like to think I will be proved wrong but I know people are going to be asking the same questions as myself when they hear it. Maybe these kitsch sounds need more time to appreciate? Have these perfectionist producers actually polished a turd? Random Access Memories won’t unite us like the hints of the disco album. It won’t unite us like great pop music. It won’t unite us like a rush of euphoria at a dance gig. At least we’ll always have ‘Get Lucky’ I guess. 😐