In the intro to “Giorgio by Moroder,” the Italian legend discusses his music, development, and the future at large. But he leaves out his most pertinent quote in the middle of the worldwide hype machine that is Daft Punk: “What the world needs now is not only good dance songs, which I think are out, the world needs something new.”
And what better lens to look at “Random Access Memories,” arguably the most anticipated studio album of the past decade, through? Since their inception in 1993, Daft Punk has inadvertently shaped every crevice of dance music into what it currently is. You’d be hard pressed to find one DJ/producer who doesn’t list Daft Punk at the top of his influences. That’s not just pure coincidence, though. Their style has always been boundary pushing—they’ve fused genres and they’ve created them. But now, after a nearly six year hiatus from the world of dance music (sans Tron), they’ve returned (to a live studio, no less) to, for perhaps the first time, make an album with an agenda.
Or at least that’s how it seems as you listen through RAM, an eclectic mix of sounds blended in from Italian discotheques to American radio. Yet it’s all a cogent theme (albeit a banal one, at this point): retrospective futurism. Guy and Thomas, for the first time, it seems, sat down and laid out a plan. We saw it when “Get Lucky” emerged into the mainstream consciousness in the form of a guitar heavy disco groove, but now, in an album at large, it’s so much more diverse than that niche. But all the while, it stays true to its intent.
“Fragments of Time” and “Instant Crush” perhaps best display that ability to channel even the strangest of genres for the duo. With The Stroke’s Julian Casablancas at the helm of “Instant Crush,” Daft Punk recreates the feel of an 80’s pop-rock anthem overlaid with a robotic Casablancas. It’s a song you could find at the end of a John Hughes movie, that is, until they break it down to disco organs and a funk-laden bassline. “Fragments of Time,” too, recalls a distinctive musical era in America—Guitar and piano melodies straight out of the Fleetwood Mac songbook flow into a frantic organ solo a la the E Street Band, with just a touch of future to it. You can’t help but hear Casey Kasem introducing it as one of the top hits of the sundrenched 60’s. And that’s the goal, at least according to the lyrics, “If I had my way I would never leave, keep building these Random Memories, turning our days into melodies. But since I can’t stay, I’ll just keep playing back these fragments of time.” That sentiment breathes through the entire album.
But American pop-rock isn’t their only interest on this album. “Lose Yourself To Dance,” Pharrell and Nile Rodger’s other funky project on this album, evokes a much more sultry “Get Lucky.” The elements remain—falsetto crooning, vocoder repetition, funk guitar—but a single bass makes it that much sexier.
And while on the subject of sexy sounds, “Giorgio by Moroder” is possibly the most so on the album. After a restaurant interview about the future of music (the synthesizer) and the simply classic line, “My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everybody calls me Giorgio,” synths filter and pan their way through a burgeoning drum that ends in some a wildly impressive scene that almost sounds like a Rush song. If you’re looking for old Daft Punk, this is one place to find it.
Perhaps the biggest standout on the record, however, is the collaboration with Panda Bear, “Doin it Right;” and if “Get Lucky” had a competitor for the album’s hit single, this is it. It’s a bare bones electronic pop song; the drum machine belongs to R&B, the vocals to the American pop collective. But fused together behind the building vocoders, it turns into a feel good reflection on the eternal truth of dance, “If you lose your way tonight, that’s how you know the magic’s right.” With all the focus on genre classification and definition, the robots remind us what music is all about: losing yourself in the sounds.
But after all that nostalgia, Daft Punk returns, triumphant, in the finale, “Contact.” Opening with an astronaut’s eerie radio transmission about a star in the distance over a sampling of The Sherbs, it’s too indicative of the robots’ true place: outer space. I think it was Pharrell that first introduced the idea that they were extraterrestrial, but here they really put life into that conspiracy. A finale to shut out any other like it, the emotion here is as palpable as the ominous organs. It’s as if all their pent up style, slowly leaking out into every other track on the album, erupts into a symphonic chaos of organs, synths and drum solos until finally white noise begins to crush every sound in the world as they rocket away towards that star. This may sound hyperbolic, but for this track, that word doesn’t exist.
And perhaps that’s what Guy and Thomas have become: distant visitors. With the potential to change music as we know it, it would certainly be a responsible strategy. Oversaturation is perhaps the death of all great musicians, and by only emerging every so often, Daft Punk stays away from that untimely death. They’re much too important to fade out into dance music’s homogeny like that.
If they haven’t before, they’ve now achieved superhero status. And they wear it well. In the disarray of genres and the four on the floor comfort zone and the rapid-fire rate of production, they remind us all to step back, pause, and look at the bigger picture. Let no genre hold you back. Create, but don’t be afraid to let past sounds invade your work. Always look to the future, but use anything available to do so. Or, as Giorgio put it, don’t create good dance music, create new dance music.
Buy it on iTunes in a week, stream it there now.