Dancing Astronaut reacts to ‘Random Access Memories’: the good, the complicated, the misunderstood
The release of Daft Punk‘s latest album has been hailed by some as the savior of dance music, while others remain unimpressed by the album’s staunch departure from the Daft Punk of yore. It has sparked heated debate amongst our staff since the iTunes stream and we’ve all given it a few days to sink in, to really listen to the album before writing our reactions. Will Daft Punk save dance music like so many have preached in the weeks leading up to its release? Or will the album fall victim to the 24-hour music news cycle and fade away into obscurity like so many other great pieces of electronic music that demand more than just a casual listen?
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I’ll be honest, when I first heard Random Access Memories I was profoundly disappointed. My fondest memories of Daft Punk have always been heavily electronic – “Aerodynamic,” “Revolution 909,” “Robot Rock” after my first listen to the album, I felt like Daft Punk had abandoned me to the same old shlock. How was this going to change a thing? I argued with some of the editors, asserted that if it weren’t for Daft Punk being attached to the album, it would have been completely overlooked by most people.
They told me to give it a chance and, although I am irrationally stubborn, eventually did. A few days and a few listens later my opinion started to change. Although I prefer the Daft Punk of my youth, Random Access Memories re-establishes something the younger me always missed; their innovation. From Homework to Discovery to Human After All and even the Tron soundtrack, Thomas and Guy have always reached outside of their comfort zones to access their creativity. I had expected Daft Punk to use radio-friendly force to change the landscape of dance music, to swoop in and shake everything up since no one else was willing to. Instead Thomas and Guy employ a different approach; they politely ask us to think a little differently about what keeps music interesting; change.
After gleefully pressing play for the very first time on Random Access Memories, 70 minutes later “glee” isn’t quite the emotion I was left with. The album made me feel like I was watching a movie, not just listening to its soundtrack, and it wasn’t quite “Interstella 5555”. If I expected an album full of tracks like “Get Lucky,” I didn’t get it. If I expected a follow-up to Alive, the flow was just not there. If I expected a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, well, half of my Twitter feed says that’s what I got. The other half was defending itself from the onslaught of hatred from those convinced DP were gods and that nay-saying was blasphemy.
There are moments of pure artistry on the album, and the classic robot vocal intro on “Doin’ It Right” when combined with Panda Bear’s lyrics and a simple yet hooky snare line pushed the track to the top of my favorites. But there are also tracks that just don’t quite come off, and the album as a whole definitely requires a more refined palate than the MTV-led fist pumpers hungry for mindless drops have. I haven’t quite decided what I feel about the album, but I do know how repulsed I am by the army of those both singing its praises for no clear reason other than that it’s Daft Punk and calling out those who don’t feel the same as being ignorant or not sophisticated enough to understand the album’s magnitude. Will the album revolutionize EDM? No, because it’s not EDM. Will it perhaps spark a slow shift towards pushing boundaries and changing production methods? I hope so. But that does not mean RAM is “groundbreaking” or “game changing.” It just means EDM needs a shake up and Daft Punk recognized that, leaving the genre behind for something both “future” and past, for, in fact, something we could call random access memories.
After almost a decade, Daft Punk made their musical return with the pseudo-release of arguably the most hyped album of the year, Random Access Memories. Prior to the full leak, RAM was predicted to mark the return of “pre-synthetic” music and heralded as “revolutionary,” but the nature of the hypebeast makes it supremely difficult to live up to these often over estimated expectations — no matter how good RAM might be, it was never destined to meet the lofty expectations set by overzealous fans.
The production chops displayed on the album are impeccable and while tracks like “Beyond” and “Contact” are clear standouts, the album’s departure from electronic exclusivity has left many disappointed. Anything the legendary duo creates is destined for success, but rather than cloud their outputs with expectations, it’s better to approach them bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The album has some organic fissures, but its greatest failures are the result of excessive hype.
Over the last few months, I’ve had a lot of disdain for the amaranthine hype associated with the release of this album. Don’t get me wrong — Daft Punk’s music has been as influential to my dance music ear as the next person, but it didn’t take too long for me to lose interest in every tracklist! collaborator! teaser video! If their intentions were so pure, then why the excessive hoopla? How did this fit with the ideal of two humble Frenchmen, donning masks and making some of the world’s best electronic music?
Curiosity begets further examination, and the more I explored the question of why this record is so important, the more I found answers that satisfied. They recruited their personal heroes and recorded hours of ideas, melodies, and handwritten sheet music onto analog tapes. They scripted orchestral sections for every single track on the album (even though they only employed 3 or 4), and “Get Lucky” took a solid 18 months from start to finish. Even their entire marketing campaign was a flashback — relying on television spots and billboard ads plastered throughout major cities instead of social media.
Random Access Memories won’t be my most heavily rotated album of 2013. I’m not going to perk up in 9 months and think to myself “damn, I gotta hear ‘Touch’ right now!” But that’s ok. I appreciate that this album is significant in the tapestry of music’s history, and that is reason enough to laud Thomas and Guy.
Random Access Memories is not a revolutionary record. In anticipation of such a feat, however, a lot of people seemingly built false castles in the sky for an act whose recent activity and attributes have been overanalyzed and over marketed from the outset. That doesn’t take away from the fact that for the most part, RAM is one of the more accomplished full-length offerings I have delightfully digested in a long time. It’s rich and varied instrumentation and feel-good persona overrides the senses, with unsuspecting electronic ballads adding to the spice of variety we as an industry have always formally associated with Daft Punk’s musical legacy. The fact that they bought a handful of my favourite old timers along for the ride aside, RAM for the most part sounds like my childhood – a soulful canvas of energetic experimentation too often lost to a lust for half-hearted cultural relevance.
Does it live up to the robot’s legendary discography in terms of immediate impact and inspirational relevance? Hell no! Does it rekindle a love for music new and old that transcends the crass categorization of “EDM”? Absolutely! For me, RAM was about far more than two ornamented idols returning to the beat with heavy-handed marketing. It was about the music community coming together to don their ears to a full-length piece of work. For an allegedly singles-driven market, the sensation was near romantic for a self-professed album snob such as myself. With “Contact” and transcendental time-piece “Giorgio by Moroder” proving personal highlights to my own palette, I will remain positive that the live renditions of this material pack as much excitement and instrumental energy as the world has found enroute to Daft Punk’s long-awaited return.
RAM is sitting somewhere in between two different generations of sound. Recent dance music has flooded us millennials with computer bleeps and bloops — phasing out the use of instruments all together. Our ears have become accustomed to the sound of the synthetic. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, belongs to the ear of the beholder. Our generation will never be able to fully grasp the disco era and the magic involved, while older generations sometimes struggle to comprehend the computer noises we call music.
Daft Punk has taken a giant risk by merging these two worlds together in order to demonstrate a radically different way of presenting dance music. Hearing a robotic vocal on top of a full orchestra reminiscent of The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac throws us into a realm of time that feels distant both forward and backward. I can’t tell which era it belongs in. It’s musically advanced for disco yet incomparable to current electronic music, leaving it in a category of its own measure. I’m most curious to see if other producers will follow suit and add an orchestra element back into their sound, or rather continue to produce by way of the synthetic.
Random Access Memories is Daft Punk’s most stylistically uneven but conceptually intriguing album. The album’s content lives up to its thematic title, presenting the listener with a varied array of encapsulated emotions from divergent eras, which feels a bit like filtering through search result shrapnel of one’s past. Experienced best as a tangentially related series of sonic vignettes, the album meanders from the somber lament of “The Game of Love” to the half-documentary, half-musical museum exhibit that is “Giorgio by Moroder.” The robots made excellent use of their featured artists; a vocoded Julian Casablancas muses through amiable trains of thought on the likeable “Instant Crush,” while Panda Bear strikes the right tone to complement the nostalgic simplicity of “Doin’ it Right.”
“Touch” is certainly Daft Punk’s most ambitious sonic outing to date, casting Broadway/songwriting legend Paul Williams as the ringleader of a tripped out tour de force through a loosely defined but hauntingly evocative reincarnation narrative. The album closes with the climactic “Contact,” a dynamic composition that opens with a sample from Apollo 17 captain Eugene Cernan and builds into a frenzied storm of sound before dropping down into the modular ether. Random Access Memories may not re-revolutionize dance music as many had hoped, but no one ever does that by setting out to do it. Good musicians channel emotions, and there is no shortage of those being embodied in refreshing analog artistry here.