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?

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.

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