Tuesday, May 28, 2013

album review: 'random accessed memories' by daft punk

You know, for every terrible will.i.am or Chris Brown album I review, there's one great benefit to this gig, and it's a fairly simple one: getting the chance to go through the discographies of the greats.

It's a real thrill of anticipation, knowing that you're going to be perusing the collected works of acts that have amassed critical praise and massive success, but that you've never really had the chance to enjoy in detail. It's that amazing feeling when you realize you've discovered an artist for the first time (in your mind, at least) and you're experiencing something special, getting the chance to listen or watch something that can open your mind to all new possibilities. Because as fun as it can be to tear the justly deserving a new one, it's even more fun to find an act that has experienced critical praise and discover for yourself just how and why they got it. And while you will run into occasional duds or stretches of mediocrity, more often than not you find greatness. Of course, it's even more fun to find an unjustly overlooked act and sing their praises to the high heavens (which was my Nick Cave experience), but sometimes it's just as revelatory to join with the crowd.

And thus it becomes so cruelly ironic that it is only now I'm examining Daft Punk, one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved electronic acts of all time, and one that has built so much of their music on the principle of bringing people together. I'm completely serious here: up until this week, my experience of listening to Daft Punk has been confined to the few singles I've heard and a viewing of Interstella 5555 a long time ago. I've known they're great - they're one of the few unequivocably great things about TRON: Legacy - but I've never really had the chance to delve into the Daft Punk oeuvre.

Now, those of you who have read these reviews before likely know why I've been slow to listen to Daft Punk, but I'm sure a few of you are asking, 'well, if you knew Daft Punk was so goddamn great, why the hell didn't you listen to them before?' And really, that's a completely fair question - unlike Nick Cave or Depeche Mode, Daft Punk really don't have the massive backlog discography that would render tearing through their early albums all that strenuous. But those of you who have read my reviews before likely remember my general objections to reviewing electronica, mostly because I'm still not all that sure how to do it properly. That's one of the reasons you never saw a review of Armin van Buuren's new trance album that came out early this month - as much as they'd make my reviews considerably shorter, I tend to respond better when it comes to more lyrical material that relies more on words and less on feeling. And considering so much of electronica is based on feeling and mood (unless you're a serious sound nerd who can pull apart individual pieces of the song and assign meaning to them - I've seen a few of these guys and they're something else), I feel a little unqualified to talk about it.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I can speak at great length about an electronic act like The Chemical Brothers, of whom I'm a big fan. But this, I think, comes down to an issue of construction - so much of The Chemical Brothers' material is based upon judiciously chosen samples and a semi-coherent narrative that I find them more accessible, at least for reviewing purposes. It's a little easier to chart out album themes and messages with lyrics or samples, instead of just coming from the musical 'feel', per se.

But Daft Punk were different, at least on their early albums. They came onto the scene in the late 90s with Homework, and were immediately distinguishable from the rest of the Eurodance with an embrace of funky electronica and an array of weirdness in their audiovisual style. Like the rest of their contemporaries, the thematic elements of their music were about bringing people together to dance and have a great time, but the introduction of funk into the mix gave their music a strange edge that was distinctive, but not confrontational. In comparison to the sugary, super-optimistic dance tracks of the mid-to-late 90s, Daft Punk were expressing the same emotions but filtering them through a very different aesthetic, which gave their music a lot of character and personality. Their embrace of mid-to-late 70s funk tunes might seem a bit confrontational for electronica, but by filtering the energy and looseness of funk through their unique vision they created a sound unlike any of their contemporaries. It was a fusion of two musical genres very different in tone and theme, but very alike in energy and passion, creating something very much unlike anything else in modern music.

Then came Discovery and Interstella 5555, and at least to me, these two are halves of the same incredible whole. The music so perfectly matches the animation that considering one without the other feels a little incomplete, but it's a real testament to how great the disco-inspired album is that it still manages to hold up as an incredibly solid album on its own. If I was forced to make a choice between Discovery and Homework... damn, that's a tough choice, but I'd probably go for Discovery if only due to the fact that it's a little tighter and the disco melody lines are a little stronger. Plus, the sound is a bit more varied and there's a lot of emotional texture on Discovery that I really appreciated. As it is, it's one of the greatest electronic albums of all time and I can't help but place it in the upper echelons of great music.

And then Daft Punk made Human After All, and I'll be the first one to say that I don't dislike this album with the same intensity that a lot of Daft Punk fans do. Yes, it's not nearly as good as Homework or Discovery, but I still dug the hell out of the sludgy, rawer feel they were looking to create. The problem was that they didn't quite deviate enough from the formula, which got old and tired pretty fast. But while I'm convinced Daft Punk could have made a stronger album here with the material they were pursuing, it was enough to push Daft Punk back towards the material that made them stronger and iconic. 

And with that, after a series of live cuts and soundtracks, they made Random Access Memories, the now critically-acclaimed album that has been embraced and beloved by many? So what do I think of it?

I fucking love it. People, the critics were right, and this album deserves all the critical acclaim it's getting. Not only is Random Access Memories a great album, not only is it the best album of Daft Punk's career, it might be one of the best albums of the year and has currently jumped to be a hot contender for that slot. I was going in expecting good, and instead I got my fucking mind blown. Daft Punk didn't just surpass my expectations, they set a new bar this year for shockingly literate, intelligent, and magnificently produced music that I doubt any other act will pass this year.

And you know, in a bizarre way it was appropriate I started going through Daft Punk's discography in order to reach this point, because this album is drenched in a rich musical history context unlike anything I've heard so far this year. Like most of the music of 2013, it returns to the 70s, but it does so with a different set of goals and a much deeper thematic tie on multiple levels. Like Daft Punk's previous music, plenty of Random Access Memories is deeply rooted in the funk and disco melodies of that decade (which means I was going to love it without question anyway, but hear me out), but it also goes to a much deeper connection with the 70s music era: the age of albums.

Now, I've written before that I like albums that have a rich and coherent statement, and thus it's not really a surprise that so many of my favourite albums of all time (Machine Head by Deep Purple, Quadrophenia by The Who, Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac) are rooted in this era of the 70s. But while those albums came out in the early years of that decade, Daft Punk goes towards the end that decade to the era of disco, just before the rise of MTV, Walkmans, and CD players. And while so much of this album is a love letter to two prominent writers and producers of that decade (I'll get to this in a bit), the choice to ground the sound and the feel of this album in that decade gives it a thematic richness, a venture back towards a more pure time, but not in a way that feels like a throwback. It's not denigrating the singles artist or even lamenting the loss of the album statement, but providing a glimpse back to a time when album statements were the norm and could produce a much richer experience when listened through as a whole, messages that might be a product of their time, but will last forever. 

This 'timeless' feel also applies to how Random Accessed Memories is constructed and produced, down to the choices of samples, voiceovers, and collaborators. Pharrell Williams may have made his fortune with the Neptunes, but he shines in the role of a funk/disco star reminiscent of Earth Wind And Fire. And Julian Casablancas, almost unrecognizable beneath vocal effects and autotune, still manages to bring a potent youthful vigor to his track 'Instant Crush'. Hell, even Panda Bear (of Animal Collective) and DJ Todd Edwards seem to bring the album full circle into the modern era with their collaboations, showing just how potent melodies of the past can be combined with the sounds of the present and of the future.

But it's where the album goes furthest back that I find the most in Random Accessed Memories, and the two legends featured on this album also provide a rich gravitas that elevates their songs into something truly special. 'Giorgio by Moroder' begins with a voice over by the legendary producer/writer of the title and then takes us on a walking tour of the man's greatest strengths, and between the excellent synth and bass lines, the swelling orchestration, and the guitar solo that just comes out of nowhere, it's a testament to the man's amazing talent filtered through two ingenious musicians.

But for me the real gut-punch came with 'Touch', a collaboration with the other legend of music, the great Paul Williams. Williams has always been a great writer of phenomenal emotionally-evocative material, and he brings his absolute A-game to 'Touch'. His aged vocals perfectly compliment the varied and eclectic mix Daft Punk bring to the table (complete with choral sections, disco, a swing segment, and even some of the earnest balladry Williams was known for), and it really touched me in a way I wasn't expecting. It's the centerpiece of the album, and it's a real testament to how great the rest of the work is that it didn't overshadow everything else.

I seriously could go on for hours about how masterfully produced this album is, with every element flowing into the next with an organic mastery that feels inhuman, but here's where we need to discuss the theme and deeper meaning of Random Accessed Memories, the one that raises the album above intricately novel curiosity and into the realm of true greatness. The theme and concept is simple: it is an album about creating and experiencing music as something more. There are songs that speak to inspiration ('The Game Of Love', 'Within', 'Instant Crush'), creation ('Give Life Back To Music', 'Giorgio By Moroder', 'Touch', 'Get Lucky', 'Beyond'), and the final experience ('Touch', 'Beyond', 'Fragments Of Time', 'Doin' It Right'), and at every state of the creative process, Daft Punk show some real insight into framing and contextualizing how that first spark might be conceived, interpreted, and ultimately given back to the world that inspired it. 

It's what makes 'Get Lucky' such an instant pop classic, a song at first that might seem to be about a hookup (and maybe it is, there's a lot of fun double meaning in that song, which is part of the point) but also describes that deep creative drive to make something perfect and special. It's what makes 'Giorgio by Morodor' so powerful because it takes the idea and drive to create music unlike anything else to its natural limit and then beyond it, fusing the classic disco of the past to Daft Punk's futuristic melodies. It's what makes 'Touch' so goddamn moving, fusing melodies and styles of many ages together into a seamless whole that has that ability to speak to anyone. And as someone who is a creator, it made 'Within', a downbeat soft-disco melody about someone trying to express his inner desire on his own and not quite being able to get it right, so goddamn heartbreaking.

Now at this point, some of you might be feeling that Daft Punk might be erecting a barrier here, between the artist and the rest of the world, which could render some of their material distant or pretentious. But Daft Punk overcomes this with one other bit of brilliance: by including songs that speak not just to the creator, but those who experience music. Songs that can make us dance, songs that can bring us together, songs that can inspire love and emotion, songs that crystallize and encapsulate moments in time like nothing else, songs that can truly last forever, no matter where we are. And by linking the fact that ultimately the experiences we all share contribute to that creative process, Daft Punk closes the circle and makes something for everyone, maintaining that egalitarian worldview they started with Homework, crystallized with Discovery, and now have perfected here. The circular 'feel' of the album also comes through in the sound - it rolls back to the past, to that creative inspiration, and comes back to us in the present with the experience. It's thus no surprise that the last song and the first song ('Contact' and 'Give Life Back To Music') flow into each other effortlessly and represent the most 'modern' incarnation of Daft Punk's sound, with 'Contact' being that final link in sealing the metaphor musically and thematically, the sample of the astronauts observing Earth from the moon and the crescendo bringing us all together in one euphoric dance.

It's no surprise that I love this album - as an album statement, it's one of the best I've seen this year and the execution is damn near flawless. It's in hot contention with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Push The Sky Away for my favourite album of the year, and with songs like 'Touch' and 'Within' and 'Get Lucky' and 'Contact', it might just get there. I wouldn't quite call it a perfect album in every way, but it's damn, damn close. But I don't recommend this album just because of that. No, I recommend Daft Punk's Random Accessed Memories because in terms of craft, construction, emotion, and thematic cohesion, you're not going to get a better, more timeless album this year.

Folks, this is the real deal. Daft Punk may have made their magnum opus with this album, and are inviting you along for the ride through time, there and back again. Trust me when I say it's a trip you won't forget.

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