Review: “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk
June 3rd, 2013
Since their debut in the mid-90s, Daft Punk revolutionized dance and electronic music. They took samples from disco and funk of the 70s and 80s and gave the songs an electronic rebirth. They also had a very unique, albeit gimmicky, persona. They were robots experiencing our culture and imprinting themselves upon it. Songs like Digital Love, Harder Better Faster Stronger, Robot Rock, and Technologic showed us what the addition of computer technology could do to the art form. The music mirrored how Western culture welcomed and embraced the advent of technological prosperity. Just as the internet and cellphones ushered us into the digital age, Daft Punk were right there providing the soundtrack to it all. But after their last full album Human After All was released in 2005, something happened to music and in turn to us.
In our quest to embrace technology, dance music became artificial. Soon, any element of human interaction was left by the wayside. Dominant electronic artists like Skrillex, Deadmau5, Diplo replaced drum kits with beat machines. Keyboards were overtaken by beeps, boops, and wubs wubs with nary a sample to be found. Bass lines were snarled, synthesized and zombified into sounding like the soulless musings of rusty sheet metal. Every element blasted at full volume, subtlety and tonal variety cast off as undesirable.
Our culture has reflected this musical shift. We view computers as a more perfect alternative to humanity. As Sherry Turkle muses in her latest book Alone Together, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tether to each other.”
Seeing a world fearful of human connection, a world they helped to create, Daft Punk set out to breathe soul back into our culture.
The result is Random Access Memories.
The album’s first track acts as a dynamic manifesto for the rest of the album. Behind the endlessly catchy disco guitar riffs of 70s icon Nile Rodgers, the robots plead to us, “Let the music of your life give life back to music.” The rest of the album takes us on a journey of human experience featuring more guest collaborators than a Kanye West album. The tracks Game of Love, Within and Instant Crush reflect a longing for personal connection. Songs like Motherboard, Doin’ It Right, Lose Yourself to Dance and the soon to be summer hit Get Lucky remind us that “We’ve come too far to give up who we are.”
Random Access Memories also carries the distinction of being one of best engineered albums of the modern era. Every element is painstakingly crafted to fit at the right moment, at the right tone, with superior equalization. Most all of the recording was live instrumentation, with the occasional drum machine, modular synthesizer, and signature Daft Punk vocoder thrown in.
The album’s universe revolves around the central track Touch, an 8-minute saga featuring the vocals of 72-year-old singer/songwriter Paul Williams. Williams’ weathered voice starts off robotic, an entity in the void longing over and over again for “something more”. As his voice becomes more human, remembering the feelings of true human interaction, the song slowly transforms from a beatless chaos for robotic noise to a flourish of ragtime piano and horns, building to a pinnacle of young voices singing in a chorus to “hold on, love is the answer, you’ll know”.
The robots have looked upon our world and saw something beautiful and good. They’re reminding us that true human interaction, love, and soul are more desirable than any manufactured analog. Instead of embracing their rightful place on top the throne of artificial music, Daft Punk rejected the crown, and in doing so became kings of dance once again.
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