Random Access Memories is, believe it or not, only Daft Punk’s 4th proper studio album, and their first non-soundtrack record in eight years. And somewhere in those eight years, the French electronic duo became a cultural institution able to promote Random Access Memories with more hype than the year’s similarly maximalist and (surprisingly) arty The 20/20 Experience. But, whereas Justin Timberlake kept a highly visible public image between records, it’s hard to say the same for Daft Punk; their most lasting contribution of the last five years was getting sampled by Kanye West.
But, in any case, Random Access Memories is here in all of its 73 minute long glory. Daft Punk have never been a group to recycle their ideas, so now that the EDM soundscape that they helped inspire is in vogue, they’ve retreated into the sounds of the late 20th century. The overriding influence is disco, as shown by the bright, summery lead single “Get Lucky” with it’s funky bass, soulful vocals by Pharrell Williams, and infectious beat. It’s a decent and mindlessly catchy throwback jam that only gets really interesting once it adds vocoder vocals and extra drumming at the bridge, synthesizing the old with the new. It’s a great single, but not the best song with Williams on it. “Lose Yourself to Dance” settles into a stronger, slower groove while looped synths and modulators pour over the top of the track. The disco beat, added digital elements over it, and Williams’ falsetto make for a hypnotic combination.
Even if you missed hearing “Get Lucky”, opener “Give Life Back to Music” oscillates between prog rock breakdowns and disco refrains; “One More Time”, it ain’t. But it does hold the album’s missions statement: “Let the music in tonight…Let the music of your life/Give life back to music”. Random Access Memories is Daft Punk’s auteur “let us write our love letter to what inspired us” album, and all of the self-indulgence that comes with it. Long, lush, meticulously structured tracks without discernible hooks, recruiting studio pros, live instruments, high-as-the-sky concepts, and audiophile sound quality define RAM, not chart busting EDM.
The high-art approach can make RAM somewhat of a pass-fail album: either you’re on board with the disco/funk/jazz/New Wave studiousness that makes the majority of the album, or you’re grabbing one or two of the catchier numbers and moving on. There are less engaging songs scattered through the album, but through a combination of sequencing, the tracks themselves, and listening fatigue, “Beyond”, “Motherboard”, and “Fragments of Time” make up the record’s slowest section. “Beyond” and “Fragments of Time” offer the same genre found elsewhere, but in a less entertaining way. “Motherboard” is interesting as a proggy instrumental with exotic instrumentation, but crawls by without sticking.
But some of the album’s boldest and best ideas wouldn’t work without the high-art. Specifically, I’m talking about “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Touch”. “Giorgio by Moroder” is a nine minute track beginning with a monologue by Moroder (a pioneer in disco and dance production) with electrodisco playing underneath it. Once Moroder starts talking about his choice to put a click track on, the music reduces to a click itself. After the monologue, the synths kick back in for what’s probably the Daft Punk-est part of the album. That is, until an orchestra joins in the mix, and the song jams out in a spectacular outro before going back to, you guessed it, the click track.
“Touch”, the album’s clear centerpiece, is similarly multi-suited, but with sci-fi overtones of a robot looking for meaningful emotion and touch. The joyful disco jam halfway through and the choir towards the end–not to mention Paul Williams’ yearning vocals–give heart to a mechanical record; this is one you have to hear.
A pair of indie rock standbys get redemption rounds on RAM. Julian Casablancas of The Strokes turns up for the breezy “Instant Crush”, albeit processed beyond all reason. The song’s laid back, sunset tone fits Casablancas’ blearly vocals, and even though the song’s a bit too long at 5 and a half minutes, it’s still enjoyable enough. Meanwhile, Panda Bear of Animal Collective’s penultimate “Doin’ It Right” is one of the most minimal cuts, but the psych-pop number is an effective breather before closer “Contact” (and shortlisted for most likely to get stuck in your head).
As detailed and studied as it is, parts of Random Access Memories feel, well, random. There is a lot of material here, and some of it is absolutely phenomenal. At other times, the album readily sinks under its own ambition. Daft Punk clearly love the music that inspired them want to bring it to their fans to make memories of their own, but blending those elements into something new and engaging becomes a challenge as the album goes on. If I want a dance album stuffed with references to the past, I’ve got three LCD Soundsystem albums ready to go. Random Access Memories isn’t a dud by any stretch, but isn’t the instant classic it wants to be remembered as, three and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: Random Access Memories is sometimes brilliant, and sometimes dull, 3.5/5.