3 stars (out of 4)
Now that electronic music has become a major presence on the pop charts and the sports arenas of North America, the timing couldn’t be better for the French godfathers of 21st Century rave to strap on their robot gear and ride their synthesizers down from the space station.
But Daft Punk’s fourth studio album, “Random Access Memories” (Columbia), isn’t a victory lap so much as a commentary on what’s missing from the new golden age of electronic dance music.
Daft Punk founders Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have been talking smack about EDM lately for its lack of personality and distinctiveness. Not that their music was ever particularly original; Daft Punk’s two finest albums, “Homework” (1997) and “Discovery” (2001), were essentially lovingly created tributes to the glory days of Chicago acid-house and Detroit techno.
But Daft Punk’s feel-good hooks and the warmth underlying their machine-driven creations were undeniable. They invested the past with a futuristic glow – a feeling that took physical dimension when they staged their appearance at the Coachella festival in 2006 from inside a neon, three-dimensional pyramid. In many ways, that moment was a turning point for live electronic music in America, to the point where it’s now a major industry.
And yet, an ongoing theme in the duo’s music has been the struggle to find the soul amid the technology. It was right there in the title of their undercooked 2005 studio album, “Human After All,” and it underpins their soundtrack for the 2010 sequel to a pioneering piece of sci-fi cinema, “Tron: Legacy.” With “Random Access Memories,” they immerse themselves in a time when the technology had not outrun the humanity, when the nexus of machines, studio craft and pop culture was still under construction. They jumble ‘70s disco, jazz fusion, progressive music and Tangerine Dream electronica with a side order of pop- and Broadway-manufactured cheese.
The guest list is a mile long, a collection of legends (Chic founder Nile Rodgers), celebrity eccentrics (songwriter Paul Williams), studio heavies (drummer John JR Robinson) and contemporary stars (the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear). Live performance takes precedence over digital precision and editing. In many ways, it is the least forward-looking Daft Punk recording, but also the most ambitious – a concept album that plays like an alternative music history, with an emphasis on styles and sounds that don’t usually fit into the Baby Boomer-dictated pop/rock canon.
The manifesto “Give Life to Music” opens the album with a bombastic, arena-rock flourish, then slides onto the dancefloor behind Nile Rodgers’ guitar. What other rhythm guitarist sounds so instantly distinctive? Rodgers’ instrument glides atop the bass and drums, shaping a melody line while dictating groove. Then when the vocoder-enhanced vocals drop away, the guitar becomes more tactile, percussive. When Rodgers locks into a hypnotic rhythm pocket with drummer John JR Robinson, it feels like it could and should go on forever.
Rodgers’ guitar instantly stamps two more tracks: The addictive house-inspired single “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance,” in which Pharrell Williams sings the hook like a robot while a vocodered, robot-like voice gets to have all the fun improvising a melody. Daft Punk expertly exploits the tension between human and machine, feeling and numbness, and turns it into a great dance track. Throughout the album, the robot vocal tracks sound more expressive than the human voices.
“Giorgio by Moroder” is exactly what it says, an homage to disco architect Giorgio Moroder. A two-minute monologue from the Italian producer describing how he stumbled upon “a sound of the future” ushers in a suite-like track that blends early disco; jazzy interplay from the era of Return to Forever; and classical sweep that echoes the duo’s “Tron” orchestrations.
Even more audacious is “Touch,” which sounds like Daft Punk’s answer to ‘70s schlock epics such as “MacArthur Park” or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical score. It’s even got Paul Williams, the septuagenarian auteur behind hits for the Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy and Barbra Streisand. Williams plays a “tourist in a dream” amid a shifting array of musical backdrops – funk guitar, noodling synthesizers, disco kick drums, classical strings, drifting-asteroids ambiance.
The track centers an album unafraid of embracing the sentimental goo that makes some ‘70s and ‘80s music so off-putting to subsequent generations. But Bangalter and Homem-Christo don’t play it as camp. In Williams they have found a persuasively bereft narrator, who comes off as sincere, vulnerable. “You’ve almost convinced me I’m real,” Williams shakily concludes, but “I need something more.”
In serving up the antidote to what they see as the coldness and assembly-line beats of dubstep, Daft Punk sometimes errs on the side of melodrama. The ballad “The Game of Love” drips syrup, and the neo-classical “Within” makes its existential questions sound almost winsome. “Beyond” searches for “a land beyond love” with an orchestrated pomp that only a dedicated Broadway fan could love. The feathery “Fragments of Time” makes the catchy blue-eyed soul of Hall and Oates sound heavyweight in comparison.
And yet, the emotional peaks offered by “Giorgio by Moroder,” “Touch” and the Nile Rodgers tracks make the lengthy 74-minute ride worthwhile. The closing “Contact” shoots Daft Punk back into space, with a snippet of astronaut Eugene Cernan’s voice from Apollo 17: “There’s something out there,” he says. Daft Punk has built a career on the concept of “out there.” But “Random Access Memories” is more about inner space, their version of soul music for an android world.
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