Daft Punk – 'Random Access Memories' album review

After two classic albums, the Daft duo were always going to find it hard to match expectations. So, how did they fare?

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Daft Punk – 'Random Access Memories'

  • Rated as: 3/5

How did Daft Punk conquer the world? Simple, they’re from France – the most uncool musical nation on earth. From Johnny Hallyday to Justice, French musicians have never tried to be as hip or trailblazing as their compatriots in LA, NYC or London – preferring instead to wallow gloriously in all that’s kitsch and retro. It’s an attitude that made Daft Punk’s first two albums (‘Homework’ and ‘Discovery’) true masterpieces – from the pinch of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ on ‘Digital Love’, the ’70s cop-show synths that drive ‘Da Funk’, to the huge consuming loop of Barry Manilow on ‘Superheroes’.

This fetish for all things retro has been at the core of the staggered (and staggering) marketing campaign for the duo’s fourth album ‘Random Access Memories’. The closest thing to '70s major label excess we’ve seen in a generation, they’ve slowly teased this record for four months using old-fashioned billboards and TV ads rather than online banners or YouTube clips. Needless to say, the ‘punk’ in their name is now totally redundant. It’s a dangerous strategy, given how 2013 has been marked by fantastic albums from David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine that appeared from nowhere. Oh là là, all this hype has created some big expectations...

For many, their Number 1 single ‘Get Lucky’ has already made the wait worthwhile. The most gentle and overtly mainstream thing they’ve ever done, its runaway success says a lot about the competition at the moment. Between Beyoncé’s aloof regal posturing and Timberlake now claiming Pink Floyd as an influence, pop’s vanguard are starting to look dangerously pretentious. With Pharrell Williams in tow, however, Daft Punk swooped in and stole our hearts with a simple and sexy everyman pop song that will dominate 2013 from house party to festival.

There’s just one snag. Anyone expecting an album of ‘Get Lucky’s will be disappointed, and maybe a little shocked. This is an album that’s brimming with ideas but often infuriatingly lacking some basic ingredients.

It’s a little incongruous that Daft Punk still wear their distinctive robot outfits. It made sense when their rhythms owed everything to machines and technology, but here they’re very much the work of living mortal men. Added to their ranks are a cast of session players, including veterans of ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Thriller’. One upshot of this ‘live’ approach is that Nile Rodgers absolutely steals the show with his virtuoso rhythm guitar playing. The man behind Chic lends his chops and chanks to a host of tracks – each shines brighter as a result. ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ (also featuring Pharrell) is a little light on ideas, but serves as almost a mini Nile-tribute, recalling his production work for both Sister Sledge and David Bowie in particular.

Divorcing themselves from rigid machines, however, means that self-indulgent noodling can sometimes creep in. ‘The Game of Love’ is a case in point – sounding like Phil Collins’s band circa 1987 jamming a slow ’n’ serious number during a casual soundcheck.

The lack of any ‘beats’ however gets downright ridiculous on ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ – a nine-minute tribute to the godfather of synthesised disco. Based around (charming, often hilarious) interviews with this electronic pioneer, it does his legacy a frightful disservice by only briefly getting stuck into an electronic groove, before turning into a bombastic nightmare of jazz-funk interludes, orchestral crescendos and an ending that’s more overwrought than Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds'. Poor Giorgio deserves a lot better.

The move away from the dancefloor is telling. ‘Random Access Memories’ is far more cinematic in its scope than you’d expect, as though parts of it aren’t meant to be engaged with at all, merely absorbed from a comfy seat. Frustratingly though, they can’t commit. Closing tune ‘Contact’ builds you up for a heavy drop, only to descend into a flurry of selfish and showy drum fills that leave you gasping for just a simple kick drum to rave to.

There’s only one moment when all this bombast really pays off – on the utterly ridiculous ‘Touch'. Using an astonishing 250 tracks of strings and choirs, it sounds like someone flitting between hippie musical ‘Hair’, a sad bit from a Lloyd Webber blockbuster and chintzy disco classic, ‘The Ethel Merman Disco Album’. Picture Christopher Biggins in a Christmas jumper. This is officially camper.

Once you get your head round the fact that Daft Punk haven’t really made an album for dancing, you can weirdly start to enjoy it a lot more. Highlights come when they cast off their Frenchness and actually engage with cool a little bit. The Strokes’s Julian Casablancas lends an uncharacteristically smooth vocal to the slow new-wave disco of ‘Instant Crush', which sounds like modern American disciples like Portland’s Chromatics. Even more magical is when Animal Collective’s Panda Bear brings his innocent vocals to ‘Doin’ It Right'. Mercifully, it features an actual drum machine, a beautiful round of vocoders (that recall the intro to Siouxsie and the Banshees’s ‘Happy House’) and very little else. It’s simple, modern-sounding and hugely enjoyable as a result.

While ‘Get Lucky’ isn’t equalled, it’s louche disco vibes are echoed on ‘Give Life Back to Music', while the album’s liberal use of vocoder isn’t bettered than on the marvellously melancholy ‘Beyond’ – a dead-ringer for Warren G’s ‘Regulate’ (or more specifically, its sample source, ‘I Keep Forgettin’ by Michael McDonald).

At present, the duo have no plans to tour ‘Random Access Memories'. The album, it seems, is meant to be the event, which is why the ads, teaser trailers and online clamour are their equivalent of a lazer show and a roaring crowd. Hype aside, Daft Punk were always going to find it hard to match expectations. Their first two albums are classics because they were start-to-finish brilliant. What they’ve created is a truly great event, but only a patchily good album.


'Random Access Memories' is released on May 20. Buy the album here.


Users say

11 comments
Tom
Tom

Claiming that 'Giorgio by Moroder' does Moroder a 'frightful disservice' is an absolutely laughable conclusion. What Moroder was all about was pushing the use of synthesizers in music forward to new applications, Daft Punk have achieved EXACTLY this. They have used classic sounding electronic beats which capture the essence of the modular synth, then included groundbreaking production, incredible performances from the world beating rhythm section of Nathan East and Omar Hakim, and real emotion throughout. Giorgio Moroder would be astonished by what musicians can now achieve owing to his innovations. There are a number of suggestions in this review which are woefully under-researched, but for me the most annoying thing when reading it is the fact that this reviewer has gone into this with a preconception of what he waned to hear. Surely this is the cardinal sin for a music critic? I'll not be taking the reviews in this otherwise reputable magazine seriously from now on. Which 'basic ingredients' are missing by the way? Perfect programming, wonderful mixing and mastering, session performances that are inspiring and always appropriate, a great concept which is excellently maintained throughout the album, brilliantly gauged guest appearances which highlight the very best things about the back catalogues of each artist... Not to mention the artwork, the promotional job they've done, literally every single ingredient in this record is done to the very highest standard. 'Tracks featuring Nile Rodgers - Not Enough' - Nope. Are you aware of the other session players who were involved in this record? Just because Nile Rodgers face was all big on your TV doesn't mean he's the only guitar player who lent fantastic guitar lines to this record. Paul Jackson Jr is a complete legend of the music business. You're a music critic. Sort it out.

Mark Howarth
Mark Howarth

Wow. What a frightfully inaccurate and ignorant review, so what about Paul Jackson Jr?? Its not all about Nile Rogers, Jackson wrote the guitar line to the whole thriller album...but moving away from that, I could only literally laugh out loud when you spoke of Giorgio by Moroder and how it has a "Lack of beats" and how you are so quick to talk of drum machines as a "merciful" feature to some tracks as opposed to an actual kit being played. So "Songs better than Get Lucky: 0"...I'm beginning to think that everyone else that has commented or reviewed this album has been listening to a completely different album. Are you absolutely SURE you have it right? Its "Random Access Memories" right, by "Daft Punk".

Mark Howarth
Mark Howarth

Wow. What a frightfully inaccurate and ignorant review, so what about Paul Jackson Jr?? Its not all about Nile Rogers, Jackson wrote the guitar line to the whole thriller album...but moving away from that, I could only literally laugh out loud when you spoke of Giorgio by Moroder and how it has a "Lack of beats" and how you are so quick to talk of drum machines as a "merciful" feature to some tracks as opposed to an actual kit being played. So "Songs better than Get Lucky: 0"...I'm beginning to think that everyone else that has commented or reviewed this album has been listening to a completely different album. Are you absolutely SURE you have it right? Its "Random Access Memories" right, by "Daft Punk".

duggeek
duggeek

"Hard to match expectations," is what Oliver said. I guess he's right, and the expectations that this album specifically failed to meet were Oliver's. Full credit for recognizing the behind-the-scene talents from King-of-Pop yesteryear, but a big, fat zero for failing to understand why they're on the album. This is the homage, the tribute, the ensemble piece to give thanks to what made the duo what they are today. I mean, what about the visionary (and honestly, a bit weird) Paul Williams? What's an accomplished composer, producer, director (and some would say, actor) with an affinity for ragtime ditties doing on here? I'll tell you, it's because Paul wasn't afraid to bring his dreams to the light and put his imagination on display for the world. In that light, what has DP done if not follow right in his footsteps? Neo-luddite! Album? Cheers -- A refreshing blend of old and new, showing that some things never change. Review? Jeers -- If music is one thing and one thing only, it's changing with the times. Keep up.

mellowmatt
mellowmatt

this album is a grower..i liked it but now i love it.

Claire Clarke
Claire Clarke

Personally I am already in love with this album and cant wait to purchase properly on Monday. I think it shows how they have evolved and I was never expecting or hoping for every song to be a crazy crash of drums and heavy beats. Listen to the marvel of the music and how it comes together, I think they are telling what I feel is a very clear story that really shows how they have evolved over the years. Like Tom below I think this review is inaccurate and unfair. If only they would tour...sigh

Joe
Joe

For this reviewer to want "something to rave to" is to not have an understanding that this album is making fun of you. They are purposely making an album they hope 50% of people listening to it won't like. It is exactly not what you're expecting, and that's the entire point.

Tom
Tom

Having listened to the album twice now, I can say that this review is not only inaccurate but somewhat unreasonably bitter. The move away from programmed grooves has not had a negative impact as suggested, but proves to be a refreshing experience that will only go on to improve the future live shows. To suggest that Get Lucky is the best track on this album is laughable. Random Access Memories is worthy of at least a 4/5.

Magno
Magno

I have listened to the album a handful of times, as I have all of their albums, and I agree with almost everything you said. I think DP took a very big risk going in the direction they chose and I don't think it paid off, nor do i think it will stand the test of time. Without fail though here come the 'Daft Punk can do no wrong fluffers' to start bashing any critic who doesn't hail this album as a revolutionary masterpiece.

GW74
GW74

Your "takedown" of the Giorgio Moroder track will go down in history as the worst piece of pop music criticism since Rolling Stone's trashing of the entire oeuvre of Led Zeppelin, or that 18th Century aristocrat who told Mozart Don Giovanni had "too many notes". Please fire yourself.

Karenina Angelique
Karenina Angelique

French music isn't cool? Justice aren't cool? Did you see their Across the Universe documentary film? They sang under the Bridge to Anthony from The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and married some random girl in Las Vegas only for her to run away the next day. Did you do ANY research before this article, other than google who Giorgio was? You didn't even reference Human After All as a good or bad album, do you even know there was a third studio album and two live ones? Why is Time Out paying you? How the hell can you compare Daft Punk to My Bloody Valentine? They are two completely different niche markets? Not adhering to the Punk in their name? Are you twelve? You need to listen to more music.

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