Human After All: Daft Punk's Random Access Memories

By John Dickinson

The near-decade that marked the gap between Daft Punk's last studio album, Human After All and their 2013 renaissance, Random Access Memories was initially filled with indifference from disciples of the French house duo - and was then followed by fervorous anticipation. In early March of 2013, fans and critics speculated as to whether or not the follow up to Human After All, which received generally poor reviews upon initial release, would live up to the expectations perpetuated by an increasingly mysterious ad campaign which seemed to focus 15 seconds of one song, later revealed as the lead single, Get Lucky. As more snippets of the song - and plenty of fake remixes purporting to be the full track - were gradually revealed through viral marketing, so was the extensive list of collaborators spanning all genres of the musical spectrum: Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, notable session guitarist and Chic's Nile Rodgers, Noah Lennox ("Panda Bear") of experimental psych-rock group Animal Collective, and N.E.R.D. frontman and one half of production duo The Neptunes, Pharrell Williams. There was so much to take into account. Sure, the revival of EDM (that's electronic dance music, to all the dads out there) in the late 2000s attracted plenty of unemployed trustafarian poseurs to drug-infused fuckfests like Electric Zoo, Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival, but would this new generation have appreciation for the return of one of the genre's most innovative acts? Would purists have the duo under a magnifying glass, ready to chastise at the slightest diversion from the electronic music norms? Whatever the answer may be, one thing is for sure: Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo could truly care less.

Waves of nostalgia are sure to hit listeners when they first hear that familiar, practically watermarked Daft Punk vocoder in Get Lucky. You know, that crazy vocal effect that adds an audial touch to their robot personas? The one that adds lyrical meaning to the now-unmistakable staccato'd synthesizer riff that dominates the song, making Pharrell William's vocals stand out like a drop of blood in an ocean of wires and LED lights? Of course, the song is not complete without a soulful bassline and the ever accessible four-on-the-floor drum pattern reminiscent of the post-disco aura that made the duo's 2001 breakout record Discovery not only a departure from their previously house-centric sound, but a commercial and critical success. And let's not forget Nile Rodgers' borderline pornographic guitar licks, which reflect well on the song's refrain: "We're up all night for good fun / We're up all night to get lucky."

Get Lucky, while infectiously catchy, is certainly not reflective of Random Access Memories as a whole. Complete with a monologue from legendary record producer Giorgio Moroder, an audio recording of astronaut Eugene Cernan on Apollo 17 discussing his view of a UFO, and an anthemic opening track reminiscent of 80's rock, the album is apparently a mélange of Daft Punk's musical and cultural influences over the past eight years. Random Access Memories conveys an overarching post-disco feeling, which seems to dominate over what house elements remain in the duo's bag of tricks. In accordance with this, Daft Punk seem to have traded in some of the intense, pulsing dance tunes that made them legends for avant-garde noise patches and mid-tempo ballads. At times tired and uninspired, it's safe to say that the group's sound is pushing 40, just as Bangalter and De Homem-Christo are.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing; benefits of the group's maturation are present in their lyrics. Typically, what few lyrics would be present on the duo's work prior would consist of a few reflexive bars about the music itself. While Random Access Memories has it's fair share of songs that are about...well...dancing, the record is laced with profundity and introspectiveness, giving a human face to the otherwise mysteriously masked and reticent duo. This sort of uncontrived emotion makes itself known through songs like Within:

"There are so many things that I don't understand /
There's a world within me that I cannot explain /
Many rooms to explore, but the doors look the same /
I am lost, I can't even remember my name /"

The guest collaborators add their own touch of lyrical depth to the album as well. Academy Award-winning composer Paul Williams longs for something more than the transient pleasures of touch in the song of the same name, while Julian Casablancas weighs the ups and downs of a committed relationship in Instant Crush. The theme of human memory also seems to permeate throughout the record, often juxtaposed against computer memory, with emphasis on the human qualities that separate man from machine, like improvisation and sex.

And so, bearing this in mind, the question begs itself: will Daft Punk ever hang up their $65,000 LED helmets and confront the public face to face? Probably not. But with the release of Random Access Memories, we certainly see them at their most human: vulnerable, confused, trying to catch youth and bottle it in a mason jar. The record, while ultimately a departure from the repetitive cadence of typical house music, exudes a new experimental sound as the duo dip their feet into live instrumentation and open themselves up to collaborators of a myriad of musical backgrounds, truly ushering in a new Daft Punk.