‘Random Access Memories’ (Daft Life/Columbia)
“Let the music of your life lead right back to music,” sing funky manbots Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, on the lead track from Daft Punk’s first studio album in eight years.
It’s a lyric that serves as a manifesto-of-sorts for the rejuvenated French house duo, whose cult has swelled in recent years to near-galactic proportions, in spite of the fact their last two records (including 2010’s ‘Tron’ soundtrack) haven’t been up to all that much.
According to ex-Chic man and collaborator Nile Rodgers, Bangalter and de Homem-Cristo “went back to go forward” in making their new album. But is he right? Certainly, some of the fuss surrounding first single ‘Get Lucky’ – a classy-but-basically-unchallenging bit of disco fluff – seemed more like wishful thinking borne of nostalgia than anything else.
Why all the adulation that’s come their way of late, then? Perhaps it’s because, for music fans of a certain age, Daft Punk represent a sort of pop auteurism that’s generally absent from the charts these days, but which they shared with the likes of Timbaland and ‘Get Lucky’ collaborator Pharrell Williams around the turn of the millennium.
Then again, maybe it’s the way the new single harks blissfully back to Rodgers’ disco heyday as well as the band’s own pop-house prime – an admittedly thrilling prospect, but viewed in proper perspective, is it as good as Spiller’s ‘(Groovejet) If This Ain’t Love’, a track that took its cues from Daft Punk’s own late-90s example? Probably not.
Perspective, however, has been in predictably short supply in the run-up to ‘Random Access Memories’’ release. Even the normally sanguine Pharrell Williams got carried away in a recent video interview, when he was asked where he saw Daft Punk heading next. “Up,” he whispered piously, as if their ascension into heaven was somehow imminent. “…it’s where they belong.”
The more prosaic truth is that ‘Random Access Memories’ is an enjoyable – if sometimes screamingly overwrought -return whose pop cuts lean hard on Rodgers’ upscale rhythms, plus the lithe R&B of ‘Off The Wall’-era MJ, 70s MOR and laid-back G-funk. ‘Give Life Back To The Music’’s liquid summer-funk makes for a great opener, while Pharrell delivers another standout in ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’’s seductive, West Coast pop.
On tracks like this and the Hall & Oates-meets-Dâm-Funk balladry of ‘The Game Of Love’, the group’s signature robot vocals make a fresh kind of sense; laying bare the debt of influence they owe to gangsta rap staple/vocoder pioneer Roger Troutman.
The G-funk connection is further explored on ‘Beyond’’s tongue-in-cheek nod to Warren G and Nate Dogg’s ‘Regulate’, tailor-made for after-hours creeping round the block. And, to touch briefly on another thread running through the album, Warren’s original is based around a sample from ‘I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)’, by Steely Dan’s Michael McDonald. It’s something of an undersung MOR classic, and MOR’s fingerprints are absolutely all over ‘Random Access Memories’, especially the 70s Californian variety – see ‘Within’’s weird Carpenters vibes, and especially ‘Fragments Of Time’’s echoes of Fleetwood Mac and the Doobie Brothers’ ‘What A Fool Believes’ (also co-written by Michael McDonald).
But calling ‘Random Access Memories’ Daft Punk’s West Coast album is telling only half the story. Julian Casablancas’ cut (‘Instant Crush’) succeeds by virtue of sounding a lot like something off ‘Phrazes For The Young’, the Strokes man’s underrated solo LP from 2009, while Panda Bear’s contribution, ‘Doin’ It Right’, feels like less of a natural fit tucked away at track 12.
More disruptive to the record’s flow, however, are its moments of cringeing portent – the scenery-chewing, children’s choir-abusing epic ‘Touch’, featuring an am-dram vocal turn from ‘Muppets’ songwriter Paul Williams and a mad orchestral finale that makes ‘A Day In The Life’ sound like a storm in a teacup. And in ‘Contact’, the band concocts the kind of curtain call even Muse would reject as too cheesy.
Nine-minute Giorgio Moroder tribute ‘Giorgio By Moroder’, meanwhile, seems misplaced at track three, but at least feels like it has its heart in the right place, splicing long spoken-word samples from the electro trailblazer himself with a wonderfully OTT take on his retro-futurist shtick.
The back-to-roots approach is uderlined by the emphasis on live instrumentation – a reaction, perhaps, to Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s hated EDM. Then again, it might just as easily be a natural progression for two French men in silly helmets staring down the barrel of their forties. Not a great leap forwards, then, but a welcome throwback nonetheless.