I only really got into Daft Punk in the past six months, so I didn’t experience their first two albums, Homework and Discovery, when they first came out. (I didn’t listen to Human After All either, but that’s less of a loss.) Oh sure, I knew the big singles like “Around the World” and “One More Time,” but I assumed that a whole album of dance music was something I would never be able to get into. Still, it was hard to not get caught up in the massive hype that preceded Random Access Memories. The enormous build-up inspired me to delve into their back catalog, and I was a little surprised at how much I loved them. Dance music was never my love, but I saw at the core of the French duo a love of melody and passion that accompanied the dance rhythms. These days my favorite “fire me up for a workout” album is 2001’s classic, Discovery.
Those who fire up Random Access Memories for the first time will be a little surprised at what they hear. Instead of samples and drum machines, RAM is a much more organic album, recorded without loops and digital equipment. It has it’s dance classics, like the inescapable first single “Get Lucky,” but it also has weird 7-minute epics, a host of guest appearances from giants of the genre, and a few syrupy ballads that won’t do much on the dance floor at all. All that wrapped up into a 70-minute behemoth of an album, one that strips away layers of cliches that have been caked onto the genre and harkens to the past while it forges ahead.
I didn’t feel this way immediately. Like their other albums I let it play in the background until it refused to leave my head. The real turning point was when I put it in headphones and listened to the whole thing. It’s one of the best-sounding albums I’ve ever heard, with an attention to detail that would make Brian Wilson blush. If the album publicity is to be believed, that’s actually not a bad comparison. Like Wilson with Pet Sounds and Smile and the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper, Daft Punk essentially made exactly the album they wanted with little regard for cost or practicality. They brought in full orchestras, spent buckets of money to polish these songs to a bright sheen, and didn’t worry about things like marketability, trusting that fans would follow them where they led.
I’m not sure that’s been the case exactly. It’s not an immediate album, whatever it is. “Get Lucky” doesn’t turn up until well past the halfway mark, and frankly this doesn’t sound that much like anything else Daft Punk has done up until now. “Get Lucky” plays like the best Michael Jackson song since at least 1982, but I actually like “Lost Yourself to Dance” even more because of it’s swagger and sexy hook. Both songs are great dance songs, though they’re both late 1970’s disco above all else. That old-school streak runs deep and wide. Daft Punk have always been in love with the music of the 1970’s and 1980’s, but they’ve never been this blatant about it. Two tracks, “The Game of Love” and “Within,” both sound like the gooiest pop ballads of the 80’s, but their melodramatic lyrics are able to get out of the way and let the music pull the emotional core. They melt like butter, smooth and mellow. Long time fans might wonder where the beats went, but it’s hard to argue with results like those.
But it’s in the epics that Random Access Memories really finds its emotional core. “Giorgio by Moroder” is a headscratcher at first, since it’s just a monologue by disco great Giorgio Moroder about his early career. But when the vocals fade back and the track itself begins to slither its way through your headphones, Moroder’s story of passion and innovation begins to sound like the most epic of tales as it cresdendos amid squealing guitars and explosive orchestral arrangements. “Touch” employs the vocal talents of Paul Williams, the 1970’s songwriter. It’s another one of those schmaltzy lyrics that would reads badly on paper, but the song transports it into one of those overwrought movies about robots trying to find humanity. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top, and wonderful. Perhaps best is the closing track, “Contact.” Over NASA broadcasts, it’s an instrumental track that sounds like the electronic musical equivalent of the closing scenes of 2001.
All of the collaborations serve as something of a history lesson for dance music neophytes like myself. Nile Rogers, Paul Williams, and Giorgio Moroder weren’t exactly familiar names for me, but it’s actually inspired me to do a little more musical research. If Daft Punk’s first album was called Homework, here they’re assigning a little homework of their own. It’s a manifesto, a declaration that dance music can pull at your heart while it moves your hips. It doesn’t need to be ugly and blaring. It doesn’t even need to be danceable all the time. But it has a beating heart beneath all the vocoders and the synth. It points to what dance music could be.
Don’t get me wrong, you might hate this album. It doesn’t exactly yield its greatness easily. It could probably stand to be shorter, though I wouldn’t cut anything out. Maybe you just long for the adrenaline of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” But I think that when the book is written about Daft Punk, this might stand as their greatest achievement. It’s so epic and detailed that I have still not gotten tired of it. It’s one of those albums where new songs become favorites whenever I hear it. And now? Now I understand what dance music can be, what it can inspire, because this album inspires me.